Friday, May 4, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: 
Acharei Mot - Kedoshim: Two Types of Kedusha

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim represents the transition from the first half of Vayikra to the second.   The first half of Vayikra focuses solely on the Temple, its holiness, and the sacrifices.  Last weeks' double parsha, Tazria-Metzorah, continued this theme, detailing the various ritual impurities - tumot - that would demand that a person be sent out of the camp, and prevent his or her access to the Temple and its sacrifices.  And now, in  Acharei Mot, the Torah limits the access not to the Temple itself, but to the Holy of Holies.  

"Speak to Aharon your brother, that he may not enter at all times into the Holy...Only with this may Aharon enter into the Holy" (Vayikra 16:2-3).  Only Aharon - normalkohanim can never enter.  And even Aharon, even the Kohen Gadol, can only enter on Yom Kippur, only on the holiest day of the year, and only after completing the exacting sacrificial rites.

Clearly, it is not a trivial matter to gain access to the Temple, the place of God's presence.  With the Temple so inaccessible - at times both geographically and ritually - it would stand to reason that a person may want to reach out to God and bring a sacrifice without the Temple.  This option is denied as well, and the Torah - in the middle of Acharei Mot - prohibits the bringing sacrifices outside the Temple.   The first half of Vayikra, ends with this prohibition, ends by underscoring just how difficult it is to connect to God in the Temple through the bringing of sacrifices.

Kedoshim begins the second half of Vayikra and presents a radically different approach to holiness and to connecting with God.  "Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." (Vayikra 19:2).   To access the holy is not to enter the Temple; to access the holy is to strive to become holy.  To connect to God is not to enter into the Holy of Holies; to connect to God is to strive to be like God.  It is through such striving that we actualize the holiness, the divine, the Tzelem E-lohim, that is in each and every one of us.

There are, then, two types of kedusha, of holiness.  There is the kedusha of Acharei Mot, and then there is the kedusha of Kedoshim Ti'hiyu.  There is a kedusha that conceives of God as residing in a place, and then there is a kedusha that perceives of God residing in each and every person. 

The first represents the attempt to draw close to God, to enter into God's abode.  It is thus a kedusha that is highly exclusionary, for what human being can leave this world enter into the place where God dwells?   

And then there is the kedusha of Kedoshim Tihiyu.  This is holiness not about leaving this world to be close to God, this is holiness that is about actualizing the divine within us, about bringing God and Godliness into this world.  It is thus a kedusha that is accessible by all.

Kedoshim opens not with daber el Aharon achikha, "Speak to Aharon your brother," but rather daber el kol adat benei Yisrael, speak to the entire congregation of Israel.  All of you, man, woman, child, ritually pure and ritually impure, each one of you can become holy, can become like God.  This is a holiness that includes rituals and rites, to be sure, but it is also a holiness of morality, a holiness that touches on every act, every religious act, every interpersonal act, every detail of how we live our lives.

How does one live such a life of holiness?  One strives for Godliness in all of one's actions.  One does not only connect to God during ritual or "religious" activity, but also brings an awareness of God into his or her interpersonal interactions.   It is a holiness that first and foremost demands ethical behavior in all spheres. 

It is thus we find that Kedoshim opens with two mitzvot: the mitzvah to have awe and respect of one's parents, and the mitzvah to keep Shabbat.  An ethical commandment and a religious one.   The foundation of our interpersonal behavior in life is laid in the home, and starts with and is shaped by how children interact with their parents.   And the foundation of holiness is not the Temple with its difficult and limited access.  It is Shabbat, a staple of our week, a holiness that all can experience, a welcoming of the Divine Presence into our homes.

The rest of the Kedoshim presents a dense and varied listing of mitzvot, with almost every other verse ending with the refrain Ani Hashem E-loheikhem, "I am the Lord your God," echoing the opening verse, Be holy, for holy am I the Lord your God," ani Hashem E-loheikheim.   The message is clear: this is what it means to be holy, to be like God, to connect to God.  If we are to live a life of this type of holiness, then we must bring God into our harvesting of grain, in our buying and selling, into our hiring and paying of workers, into our dealing with the disadvantaged, into our speaking of others, into our feelings towards others.  To have access to God everywhere also means that we cannot compartmentalize our religious life from our "normal" life.  God can be found in every activity, thus we must strive to find God in all parts of our lives.

Ramban, in his introduction to Vayikra, notes that the construction of the Mishkan was to recreate Har Sinai in the Israelite camp.  Just as God's presence came down to the top of Har Sinai, so did God's presence fill the Mishkan.  Just as boundaries were set around the mountain to prevent the people from "bursting through," so were the impure people kept outside the Temple environs.  And, one might add, just as only Moshe and Aharon alone were allowed to go up to the top of the mountain, so too, now, only Aharon alone is allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies.

So ends Ramban's parallel.  But one thing is missing.  For after God descends on Har Sinai something important happens - the Torah is given.  The purpose of the descent was not to draw close to God's presence, the purpose of the descent was so that God may command us in the mitzvot of the Torah.  

Now, there is a parallel to the Giving of the Torah in Vayikra.  The parallel is parshat Kedoshim.  First of all, many commentators have noted that the mitzvot at the beginning of Kedoshim parallel the Ten Commandments.  But more significantly, it serves as the culmination and translation of all that preceded.   What is the purpose of God descending Har Sinai?  Not for us to go up to the mountain, but for us to receive the Torah.  What is the purpose of having a Mishkan?  Not primarily to enter it, but so that God's presence, God's dwelling in our midst, results in our living a life of holiness, a life of mitzvot.  The kedusha of the Mishkan is to translate into thekedusha of striving to be holy, striving to be like God.  The kedusha of Acharei Motis to bring about the kedusha of Kedoshim.

Let us never forget that even in our religious strivings, even as we might try to come close to God, the ultimate kedusha is a life of mitzvot, it is a life of actualizing the divine within us.  It is a life where God is accessible to every person;  it is a life where God is present in all of our actions.

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week started out with a bang, as the yeshiva held its Alumnus of the Year dinner award ceremony at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, MD.   Rabbi Nissan Antine (YCT 2006), Associate Rabbi and incoming Senior Rabbi, was recognized as the YCT Alumnus of the Year.  Over 235 people attended that dinner, and we raised in excess of $135,000.  Much of that money was eligible for matching donations, so in the end we received over $350,000! 

The evening began with a panel on medical ethics and end-of-life issues.   The panelists were myself, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Rabbi of Ohev Shalom: The National Synagogue and Dr. Andrew Shorr, Associate Director of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the Washington Hospital Centre, and we addressed the halakhic, pastoral and medical dimensions of these issues.  The presentations made a big impact, and people remarked afterwards how stimulating and valuable they found the panel, and that they are now motivated to be more proactive in dealing with advance directives and health care proxies.

The dinner itself was extremely well attended.  It was particularly moving to see a number of Rav Nissan's colleagues - his fellow musmakhim - at the dinner.   Helene and Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro (YCT 2008), Rabbi Aaron Frank (YCT 2008), and Rachel and Rabbi Chai Posner (YCT 2010) were all there to join in the simcha.  After speeches from Steve Lieberman, myself, Rabbi Michael Unterberg, and Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Antine closed with his acceptance speech.  

I must say that I found myself tremendously moved by Rabbi Antine's speech.  Rabbi Antine spoke almost exclusively about his deep gratitude to YCT, how were it not for YCT he would not have been a rabbi at all, and certainly not the rabbi he is today.  How YCT has educated and trained not only him, but all of his colleagues, colleagues who are serving in synagogues, heads of national Jewish camping, heads of chaplaincy of major hospitals, and as rabbis and teachers in high schools and on college campuses.   He ended by saying that he cannot sufficiently thank or  begin to repay YCT in words, but that he can start to do so in action - in active support of YCT, financially and otherwise, and he then encouraged his congregants and all the attendees to do the same, to be active supporters, individually and collectively, of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

The sincere and profound expression of gratitude that Rabbi Antine expressed was matched by comments that the attendees were making throughout the evening, talking about their enthusiasm and gratitude for Rabbi Antine, of course, but also for YCT and everything it represents.  Our deep thanks go out to Steve Lieberman, our Chairman of the Board, to the dinner chairs, Debra Sunshine and Dr. Abraham Cherrick, and Evelyn Marcus-Wheeler and Charles Wheeler, and to the education chair, Judry Subar.  And, of course, our thanks to all the attendees for their participation and support, and to the leadership of Beth Shalom for their eagerness to host this significant event in their synagogue.

This joyous event, however, was sadly accompanied by some tragic news.  Irene Smook, mother of Naomi Smook, YCT Vice President of Institutional Advancement, passed away on Sunday, the day of the dinner.  We also mourn the passing of Gertrude Bennett-Fox, mother of Rabbi Joel Tessler, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom.  Rabbi Tessler was unable to be at the dinner as he was with his mother in Florida.  To Naomi Smook and to Rabbi Tessler we say:  HaMakom yinachem etkhem bi'tokh she'ar avalei Ziyon vi'Yerushalayim, May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.