This week we read a double portion, Parashat Achrei Mot Kedoshim. What is holiness? What does it mean to be a holy person? How can I be a holy person?
It is so easy when I am away on a gap year or retreat to grow as a spiritual person. But at home and work? There is no chance. Is this true? Let’s dive into Parashat Acharei Mot- Kedoshim to discover a new understanding of what it means to live a life of holiness.
Parashat Achrei Mot Kedoshim Summary
- The Yom Kippur service
- The laws of slaughtering and blood
- The laws of illicit relationships
- What does it mean to be Holy
- Love Your neighbour
- The punishments for disregarding the laws
Kedoshim – Kedusha
One of the central features of Judaism is holiness- kedusha. We are taught that holiness exists within all spheres of our lives. We have holiness of time, Shabbat and the festivals. We have holiness of space, the Land of Israel, The Temple, and even the shul. And the holiness of a person, for example, the Kohen and a Levi.
The term holiness in Hebrew is Kadosh. Anytime we do something to increase holiness, we will use letters קדש – KADESH, for example, Kiddush on Friday night to sanctify the Shabbat day and separate her from the rest of the week.
The term קדש KADESH literally means to separate. So in order to create holiness, we need to separate from the mundane to increase holiness. This is indeed how many people would translate the term. To be Kadosh, one must separate oneself from outside influences. This indeed is true. For a person to develop their character and knowledge, one needs to be separate from external influences. It is no surprise, that the great scholars were those who cloistered themselves to study. There certainly is much to be said about the dedication, devotion and commitment of those who choose such a path. Their knowledge increases exponentially relative to those that mix within society with a multitude of distractions.
But Is This The Ideal?
The Talmud records a debate around this very topic and concludes that very few will succeed.
I saw the following story about the great Rabbinic master Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (1720-1797) known as the Vilna Gaon. His level of scholarship and piety was renowned. I still remember as a child hearing from an old Lithuanian Jew, that there were rabbis and then there was someone even greater than a rabbi – the Gaon of Vilna.
The Gaon’s knowledge was incredible, as was his piety. One day he was visited by the famous preacher- the Maggid of Dubno. The job of the Maggid was to give ethical instruction and rebuke to the community so that they could improve as people.
The Gaon asked the Maggid to find a character flaw. The maggid replied that there was no flaw in the Gaon except one. He continued. “You are the greatest scholar of our time because you have separated yourself from the community. That’s not special. If you want me to be impressed. Let me see you achieve the same level of scholarship and piety while outside working in the markets. Surrounded by noise, swearing, and cheaters. If you can maintain your level in that situation then I would say that you really are great.”
According to the story, the Gaon cried.
Judaism Engaging The World
As a people, we celebrate scholarship and knowledge, but Judaism is not about elitism and separateness. It is about engaging in the world. Finding holiness while sitting in a Temple on some hidden mountain is easy. Finding holiness while bathing kids and doing shopping is another level.
The great scholar, Maimonides (1135-1204), known as the Rambam, wrote an incredible halachic work called the Mishne Torah. Within the work, he divides the entire system of Halachik Judaism into 14 volumes.
One of the sections is called Kedusha- the laws of holiness. In this section, one would be surprised to find, that the Rambam does not bring the laws of Shabbat and prayer. Rather he brings the laws of kashrut, what we can and cannot eat. He brings the laws of illicit unions, who we can and cannot marry.
Achrei Mot – Kedoshim: What Is Holiness?
The Rambam is teaching us a novel idea about what it means to be holy. Holiness means to separate from that which is forbidden. Holiness is present in every setting. It is everywhere. When I refuse to enter a non-kosher establishment to order a cheeseburger- I am elevating myself and living a world of Kedusha- holiness.
Judaism teaches us that serving Hashem and growing as a person, can be achieved in the mundane. In the day-to-day experiences. By elevating every experience that we have into an encounter with Hashem.
Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim highlights this in almost every single verse. When we stand up for an old person so they can have a seat. When we support the widow and the orphan. When we let a negative comment slide. When we drop the grudge.
Holiness is everywhere, and the opportunities for spiritual growth abounds. The Torah, through the multiple mitzvot, provides us with so many opportunities to elevate ourselves and live a life of Holiness.