Today, we hear a lot about power: military power, corporate power, and political power. We don’t hear as much about personal power. But, in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, a double portion, we learn about the potential for personal power. It follows Acharei Mot (“After the Death” of Aaron’s sons) and instructions about purity. In Acharei Mot, we follow the unfortunate outcome of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who brought an alien fire into the Tent of Meeting, which was an affront to God and Moses. Personal power isn’t a sin, but the misapplication of it can lead to horrific outcomes. In K’doshim, we open with the Holiness Code and within it a credible means to personal power that also reflects God’s holiness.
In Leviticus 19:2, we read, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” God’s holiness is enduring and everlasting, and God’s holiness is the source of our holiness. The proof text is found in II Chronicles 13:5, “Surely you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, gave the kingdom of Israel to David, forever…” Now, our verse, “You shall be holy,” can be read, “You shall always be holy, for I the Lord your God am always holy.”
From this we might conclude that personal power is equated with God’s power; but, it isn’t that simple. In Leviticus 19:2, the Hebrew verb tih’yu, “you shall be,” is written in the imperfect form (not simply the future tense) of the verb “to be.” It means that being holy is not instantaneous even though holiness is present. Likewise, salvation, which is a Jewish goal, is not instantaneous either. Through performance of mitzvot, salvation might be achieved over a lifetime. Milton Steinberg explains:
“Other men (sic) may help him. They may give him courage, guidance, instruction; they may blaze trails and set examples. But, in the end, sight is not sight if it is vicarious. Companionship, whether with God or anyone else, must be immediate or it is not companionship. In sum, there is and can be no vicarious salvation. Each man must redeem his own soul.” (Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism [NY: Harvest, 1947], p.58)
For us, such salvation or human holiness is a work-in-progress that we achieve over time when we do mitzvot, “ethical and ritual commandments.”
In Vayikra Rabbah (24.4), a commentary on Leviticus, the Rabbis use the word perush to explain how we can gain salvation or human holiness. Perush means separate. If we substitute “separate” for “holy” in K’doshim, the verse takes on fresh meaning: “You shall be separate for I am separate.” To “be separate” is the key to being humanly holy. I read it this way: the key to being humanly holy is living above the fray.
The entire Holiness Code separates human behaviors from the fray by lifting us up to new standards of behavior. Constantly aspiring to do sacred mitzvot gives purpose to our work and our relationships. For example, Leviticus 19:9 describes a human ethic that separates us from our baser instincts by aiming our efforts towards a higher good:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest … you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
Most of us understand the meaning of this ethical teaching, but its implication can escape us. As urbanites, many of us don’t know much about farming, but we do know much about reaping benefits and harvesting returns. Shouldn’t we also know something about leaving a portion of our earnings for the poor and the stranger?
Likewise, food is a necessity of life. When we live above the fray we see it as nutritious fuel and not as a triumph. “All you need,” rather than “all you can eat,” is a better way to approach the restaurant buffet. Sex is also a God-given urge. Living above the fray can mean a loving relationship with expectations for satisfying that urge in mutually respectful ways. The Talmud is rife with examples about how to satisfy both hungers with holiness in mind.
Alan Morinis, author of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar and leader of today’s Mussar movement, relates the following:
When asked how he had had such an impact as a great sage and leader in the 20th-century Jewish world, the Chafetz Chaim answered, “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
That brings us to Leviticus 19:18, which commands us to “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Eternal.” This is the high point along the way. Here we have aimed high enough so that our human holiness is reflected in what we’ve made of ourselves and then extended to others. Mutual love and respect is the apex of holiness.
Our covenant with God is predicated on our participation in a set of rules that elevates us beyond even our own expectations. Our covenant demands that we become more with Torah, rather than less without it. Now, let’s pause to reflect, to give thanks, and to look for ways to aim high. You, too, are commanded to be holy, humanly holy.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.
Individual power. In his commentary, Rabbi Lyon reminds us that Acharei Mot focuses on the immense power that individuals can possess. That emphasis could not be more timely. Day after day, we see teens, galvanized by the horrors of gun violence, raising their voices in rage and protest. “Emma Gonzalez for President” is a popular meme. Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler’s speech went viral. Like a biblical prophet, she gave voice to unfairly underrepresented communities. David Hogg is considered a possible political candidate in the near future. Youth throughout the country, including many young people in the Reform Movement, have risen to lead — organizing campaigns behind the scenes and speaking from the podium. Over one million people participated in their protest — the March for Our Lives. It is clear now, more than ever, that individuals possess the power to effect change.
While we don’t know their exact age, Nadab and Abihu were also young people. Like the victims of school shootings, their end was shockingly abrupt and profoundly tragic. They led lives cut too short without justification. Commentators have worked hard for centuries to create narratives of meaning around the deaths of these young people. Perhaps now, in the long shadow of the Parkland murders, we can understand their tragic end a little bit differently. Sometimes cruel, unexplainable, horrific tragedies occur in our world and there is no sensible meaning. Perhaps the untimely death of Nadab and Abihu was one such case.
Nadab and Abihu never got the chance to grow, flourish, or speak for themselves about their hopes, their future, or their intentions. But the survivors of the Parkland shootings do. And those survivors have inspired throngs of other newly minted activists. At marches across the country, over 2,500 Jewish teens participated. At the march in New York City, it was impossible to walk even one block without seeing faces of Reform Jewish teens, standing in solidarity with their counterparts across the country. These teens raised their voice and transformed their individual platforms into a potent moment of protest and prophesy. May they continue in their work, and may we all be reminded of the power of the individual to raise their voice and let it be heard.
Rabbi Diana Fersko is associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. She is the founder of Pathways to Judaism and serves as National Vice President for the Women’s Rabbinic Network.
Acharei Mot/K’doshim, Leviticus 16:1−20:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858−907; Revised Edition, pp. 769–813
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 679–722
Haftarah, Amos 9:7−15
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 999−1,000; Revised Edition, pp. 814−815