Achrei Mot is principally about Yom Kippur, the holiday that is generally deemed the holiest day of the Jewish year. It should not surprise us that this portion follows our discussion last week of tzara’at as a disease provoked by sin. We are beckoned by our covenant to serve God, to live as God expects, to come near God to help us cleave with, and dwell near, God. This day is a day for return, a day that we dedicate to turning from waywardness and to God, a day calling for at-One-ment. Yet, the portion comes almost exactly six months after the last Yom Kippur and six months before the next, suggesting that turning toward, and returning to, God is something we should always be devoted to do, each and every day, and in each season.
Kedoshim is about holiness. It is, thus, and appropriately, right at the center of the book and indeed at the center of Torah. It is full of such wonders I dare not endeavor to discuss them in the spare space of an introduction. I’ll just say: prepare yourself!
I. A. Read 16:29-31. What are the elements of Yom Kippur, and what is its purpose?
(Self-denial. No manner of work. For all, including the alien. Expiation for sins, making one pure for God. It’s a sabbath of complete rest. We have infused a notion of atonement or expiation to the day, but there is clearly an inherent and originating idea of purging or denial.
What does the text mean by self-denial as an important part of making one pure for God?
Simply, it is often seen as fasting. It certainly does include fasting as well as prayer and meditation, and refraining from other pleasures. It also traditionally means “an affliction of the soul.”
Commentaries on this day in the Mishna, Gemara, and other texts go deeper into God’s expectations. For example, the Zohar sees us as seeking with whole intent to cleave to God and that God reveals the Divine self on this day to effect an atonement for the sins of all.
We don’t have time to go through all the possibilities; they’re many, rich, and complex. But I have had an insight that I want to work through with you. It involves something deeper than fasting, though fasting certainly sensitizes us to these duties. It’s key to understand this is not just to go through a ritual of fasting. We’ve talked about how rituals without meaning can be empty.
I want to make the case that the denial of self goes to “giving up ground,” metaphorically, that we’ve expropriated from God and others in how we’ve lived. How and in what ways will be the topic of our short study now.
We’re going to do something new today. We’re going to look at a little text from the Mishna and some text from the Gemara, the components of the Talmud that relate to the meaning and purpose of Yom Kippur. I hope it will reveal for us some meaning about the self-denial called for in the Bible.)
B. Read Mishna statement and words from Gemara in the handout.
1.Let me ask your thoughts on what might be the distinction between offenses against God and offenses against one’s neighbor? Illustrate a few of each.
(As to God, straying to the worship of other forces, (idolatry), loss of faith, despair, loss of hope, diminished integrity or wholeness, loss of belief in the ultimate triumph of good or at least our commitment to the good, and, as we learn here, not thinking of and seeking and reasonably obtaining getting right with the other.
As to the other, any way in which we violate the mitzvoth relating to the demands of justice, righteousness, fairness, and mercy.
So, do you read in this text that God requires us to do what we can to get right with those we’ve wronged to be forgiven? If so, why?
(We’re God’s partners in building the world. God values justice, righteousness, fairness, and mercy; and, so, God wants and expects us to value these things as well, especially in our direct encounter with others in our lives. Spreading God’s sovereignty on earth and serving God in the world require that we act out of love of God and love for our fellows.)
2. What might our getting right with others and God have to do with the requirement that we engage in self-denial on this day?
(It may ritually be acted out in fasting, but isn’t the important part that we pull back on our ego, on our self-interest, on our having acted or taken in a way that goes beyond what’s right or ours? We deny our selves with respect to where we’ve expropriated ground that was not ours, either with respect to God or others, and, metaphorically, give it back. One important thing here is that God expects us to get right with each other before we can be fully right with Him.)
3. What do you make of the last comment in the Gemara?
(We must try to obtain forgiveness from the other, but only reasonably so. Others are obliged to forgive us when we sincerely seek forgiveness, just as God expects us to seek forgiveness when we err.)
II. Beginning of Kedoshim. Read 19:1-2. Crucially, this is addressed to the whole community. We see a return of this key precept: you shall be holy because God is holy. Based on all you’ve studied, thought before, and what we’ve studied together, what do you think it means to be holy?
(Different, set part, to show in some measure in one’s living the attributes of God, to show our highest self, being at our most God-like, exercising our power to sanctify moments and objects in our lives, using time to draw closer to God, helping people rise toward God. To find our meaning and purpose in life.
Hirsch: “when a morally free human being has complete dominion over one’s energies and inclinations and the temptations associated with them, and places them at the service of God’s will.”
For Buber: not in rising above, but in relationships with human beings here, recognizing the Thou in others.
Note the mitzvoth in this chapter cover the spectrum of life - ritual, ethics, proper behavior to poor, family relations - as if to say holiness comes in living across this spectrum, and in as much of everything we do, in a manner pleasing to God and in a manner that emulates our best understanding of God’s attributes (thus, holiness).
This goes beyond obeying the law. Talmud: “achieve holiness within the realm of the permitted.”
Holiness is the aim for everyone, not just the special or gifted. Since it’s in the plural, there is a sense of it being for the community, not just individuals and certainly not just for some. And there is the thought that effecting it in the community is especially important, for the sake both of the community and for its individuals.)
III. As read from 19:3 through 18, this amazing central part of the central book, we see a recitation of certain Divine expectations that we have already considered, including some from the 10 Commandments. What I want us to do is look at new ideas in these verses that we have not yet encountered that lead us to the climax, I think, not only of this chapter, but also perhaps of Torah itself. I want to ask you to consider how these verses might have mattered to Jesus. Tell me what you think as we get through this phase of our study.
Keep forefront in your minds that this discussion follows directly on God’s request of us to be holy, which suggests, of course, that what follows itself has great relevance to being holy.
A. Read 19:9-10. Significance?
(We’re stewards, not owners. We have duties to the least of us. And we must help in ways that are respectful of the other. Literarily, why does the Text conclude with the statement that I am the Lord your God?
It sure sounds as if: you shall be holy as I am holy, no? God cares about the poor and the stranger, and so should we!)
B. Read 11 and 12. Note the mention again of: I am the Lord! Note the variety of ways in which we can trespass against God and our neighbor. But let’s focus on the line new to our study that the wages of a laborer should not remain with us until the morning. Meaning?
(Again we have duties to those who are weaker. We have received the work, and a fair covenant with a worker has the worker being paid the same day. The assumption is the worker may need daily wages for sustenance, and, in any event, it’s as if we are holding funds that are no longer ours, to keep the pay over night.)
C. Look at 14. Meaning?
(We again find a person in need. The blind and the deaf depend upon our good will and help. We have a duty to be watchful and mindful of their needs, and be sure what we do not only helps but also never harms. And again this is a duty to them AND to God. God cares, and we must display that care and act accordingly. We shall be holy as our God is holy.)
D. Read 15 and 16. Meaning?
(Manifestation of principles we’ve long discussed at the broader level - justice, righteousness, fairness. Here it is concrete, in the real world.)
E. Read 17. Meaning?
(It’s not good enough to avoid doing wrong to one’s neighbors. We can’t hate them, even if it’s just in our heart? Why?
(Hate leads to bad, and hate eats us up, etc.)
We can, and sometimes must, reprove a neighbor, but there are limits, right? What are they?
(Avoiding guilt means not doing them wrong, which suggests not shaming them, reproving in public, failing to be constructive, being about hurting them, not fully helping them. This leads to first part of verse 18, in which we can’t bear a grudge or take vengeance.
F. Then we get, I think, to the center of the book, indeed perhaps the Torah. Read the second part of verse 18! Thoughts?
(A reaching out to the other, in attitude and emotion, and deed. Hillel. Jesus. Buber is fantastic here, who derived I-Thou, surely born, at least in part, from this verse.
Jesus and the rabbis, relying in part on text, give this a universal context, well beyond the narrow sense of neighbor. Since the other is not exactly the same as self, this exercise is more complex than it often appears. We must deny ourselves (self-denial?) enough to recognize who the neighbor is distinctly, not as an extension of ourselves. It is that self of the neighbor that we must seek and know and then love as we love ourselves. Will there be similarities? Yes. Must we elevate the other to have this sort of love? Yes. Must we think about what we want and need? Yes. But it is to the well-being or good of the other’s self, goodness for them, that we devote our love, in a way, just as we would hope for ourselves, from others as well as from our own love and effort.)
IV. We now come back out from the center of the book through essential avenues. We consider God’s directions that, I believe, have the effect of accustoming ourselves to ideas and practices that strengthen our ability to love others as ourselves. They’re both concrete guidance as well as ways of living that model principles we need to elevate and put into action in order to be true to, and consistent, with God’s aims for us with regard to holiness.
Let me now summarize these directions that fill up the rest of the portion, and then I’ll pose the last big question of the day.
First, in 19, we learn to respect each animal or plant for its own intrinsic nature, not mixing them, or their use by people, especially when there’s a sacred purpose, as if they’re all the same.
Second, in 20-22, there are consequences for not showing respect for the weaker woman.
Third, in 23-25, one should be patient with, and not demanding of, a newly planted, young tree, and be aware of our duty to give first, worthy fruits to God.
Fourth, in 26-28 and 31, and 20:6, we are not to follow pagan and idolatrous practice.
Fifth, in 29 and 20:1-5, we are not to turn our children over to wrongful or pagan practice.
Sixth, in 32-33, we are to show respect for the aged (presumably wisdom and values the old carry forward to our time), and the stranger.
Seventh, in 35-36, we are to be honest in weights and measures.
Eighth, in 20:9, we are to honor our father and mother.
Ninth, in 20:17-21, we are to steer clear of adultery, incest, and other wrongdoing and indecency in relations.
So, putting any, some, or all of these directionals in your mind, do they help us love our neighbor as ourselves, do they help bring us to greater holiness, and, if so, in what ways?
(Putting ourselves in the position of those weaker and setting up a regime for action of the strong that protects or supports the weak; keeping the path exclusive and protected for God, without worship of, or consorting with, other gods, which will raise up other aims and destroy our God-given way; recognition of the need to keep integrity in the family, the institution that must be strong to sustain holiness; elevation of righteousness and fair dealings and mercy with others, including respect for life in all its varieties, as foundational to love of neighbor.
Living in these ways IS the essence of being given and living in the promised land. This is the intended separation. This is the nature of, and call to follow, holiness. This is the fruit of the covenant. This is the way to being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.