Filling Life with Life
“The deeds of the ancestors are a sign for their descendants,” said the medieval commentator Nahmanides. Sometimes it seems that the weekly Torah portion captures the situation of our generation with remarkable prescience. So it is with Aharei Mot-Kedoshim. Contemporary Jews inhabit the hyphen linking “after the death” with “you shall be holy.” We struggle with that linkage, ponder its significance, and search for theological sense as we seek to sanctify ourselves and the world in the ever-lengthening shadow of the Holocaust. At times, the challenge seems truly formidable.
That is so, in the first place, because—for a significant number of Jews (the precise number will never be known)—the Holocaust has blocked the way to faith. How could God allow such a thing to happen to anyone, any people, let alone the people pledged since Sinai to divine service as a “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” and arguably murdered by the Nazis because of that pledge? There has probably never been a more egregious case of the righteous suffering as the wicked triumphed—a theological conundrum that has beset all religions that worship a righteous deity. Why did God not intervene to stop the slaughter? “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Some Jews have responded to the Sho’ah with loss of faith. Others have invoked the classical biblical notion of the “hiding of the countenance” (God’s temporary removal of God’s presence or providence from the world). Some have made use of the tradition of protest against the God in whom they continue to believe, demanding an accounting from the Lord of justice and mercy—if one can say such a thing—for blatant failure to exercise those attributes. Still other Jews have dared to make the claim that God actually caused or supervised the Holocaust (as punishment, one noted rabbi suggested, for Zionism and Reform Judaism). This claim, to my mind, is nothing less than obscene. I believe the Holocaust falls in the large realm of things that human beings desperately want to understand, but cannot and never will.
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” says Deuteronomy. “The revealed things are given to us and our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah” (29:28). We do not have the knowledge we want, only the knowledge we need to go on, equipment of body and soul with which to do good, and ample reason for thanksgiving. This week’s double portion, I think, points us powerfully in that direction.
What did God order Israel and its priests to do in the wake of the tragic loss of Aaron’s two sons by fire at the altar? Aharei Mot begins with details of the ritual of atonement on Yom Kippur: the way for the community to set itself right with God and one another. It then sets forth other ritual provisions making up the symbolic sacred order of pure and impure that is meant to point the way toward the ethical sacred order of Right and Wrong in individual and public life. Just before a list of transgressions in the sexual realm—the area of life in which human beings in our day, as in Moses’s time, seem to have the greatest potential either to hurt one another or to express love—Moses provides the rationale for all the “holiness” chapters that come in the wake of “the death.” The point, he says in God’s name, is life. “You shall observe my laws and my statutes, by the pursuit of which a person shall live. I am the Lord” (Lev. 18:5).
Commentators over the centuries have interpreted this verse and similar formulations in Leviticus in one of two ways. The first is to read the words as threat: do this, God warns, or you will die. The other reading—which I, along with many rabbis and philosophers over the centuries, prefer—is as promise, invitation, possibility. Act rightly, seek to be holy, and you shall experience a life of meaning, profundity, joy; what we might call Life with a capital L. The rabbis wanted Torah to be a “tree of Life for those who hold fast to it.”
God creates the world in love, according to Jewish teaching, creates human beings in love, pronounces the creation of world and humanity “very good,” and enters into a covenant with human beings as a whole, and with the Children of Israel in particular, to better fulfill God’s intention of making the world “very good.” We are here to help make God’s creatures most just, more compassionate, more loving.
This is harder to do after personal or collective tragedy that calls the meaning of things into question and leads one to doubt not only God’s existence or providence, but the very possibility of virtue. Jews and Christians should band together despite their differences, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, because we face the common threat of nihilism, chaos, belief in nothing—a danger that far outweighs any theological disagreement. The conviction of meaning, Heschel wrote, comes to us most readily when we act as God’s partners, doing along with God the deeds God wants done. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet, interpreted Leviticus 18:5 this way: “Insofar as you put Torah and commandments first, Torah gives you life in this world as well.”
Parashat Kedoshim articulates what it means to put Torah first in our lives by going back and forth among ritual and ethical injunctions, ever uniting the personal with the collective, the self and the community, service of God and service of humanity. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” again affirms possibility rather than threat. Serve the true God rather than idols of your own creation, take care of the poor and the stranger, do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, reprove your fellow rather than storing up hatred in your heart. “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (19:1–18). Rather than dwelling even for a moment on this climactic utterance, one of the most famous passages in all religious literature, the Torah continues with its litany of guidelines to holiness: “Do not let your cattle mate with a different species or sow your field with two kinds of seed” (19:19).
Holiness is meant to pervade all of daily behavior, not to inhabit the high points of experience only. Love means reaching out toward neighbors and world with the same care, regard, and generosity we normally reserve for ourselves and those closest to us.
The ritual laws of Leviticus are foreign to modern individuals for whom animal sacrifice is not a matter of course (and may be repellent). The ethical promise of Leviticus may seem equally foreign at a time when the world seems more out of joint than ever before. We denizens of the early 21st century tend to be surprised at reports of altruism, but not at news of rape or murder. Accounts of genocide or ethnic cleansing remain horrifying, but they are no longer astonishing. Collective decisions for justice or self-sacrifice, let alone for love, occasion true wonderment.
Nevertheless, we know that everything depends—now as ever—on the effort by individuals and societies to rise to holiness. We know, too, that life is filled with Life to the extent that we make that effort and live in a community that does the same.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.