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Parashat 04/23/2010

Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Rashi to the opening verse of Parashat Kedoshim (k’doshim tihyu – you shall be holy!) states:

Separate yourself from forbidden sexual relationships and from [other] transgressions… for every place where you find a fence around forbidden sexual relationships, there you find holiness.

While Rashi emphasizes sexuality in his comment (perhaps because the entire prior chapter was devoted to laying out the boundaries of proper and improper relationships, and the succeeding chapter will lay out the consequences of their violation), it is clear that the way to becoming holy is through separation.  However this separation is not to be carried to an extreme; as we know, monasticism is not a Jewish value.  Instead this separation has to take place while we are still engaged with the world.  Perhaps this is not so strange, as Gd, the source of all holiness, is at once transcendent, infinite, and therefore completely detached from everything finite, but at the same time is intimately involved in even the minutest aspect of creation.  When Gd commands us to “be holy” it is another way of saying, “emulate My nature.”

This separation does not only apply to us as individuals; it applies to the nation as a whole.  In verse 20:24 Gd tells us I am H” your Gd Who has distinguished you (plural) from among the nations…. and two verses later And I will distinguish you from the nations to be Mine. Rashi comments: If you distinguish yourself you will be Mine, but if not you will belong to Nevuchadnezzar and his ilk.

We as a nation are charged with being Gd’s representatives in the finite, created world.  Our job is to infuse Gd’s infinite nature into our individual lives, our national life, and the life of the world, creating ever-expanding values of integration through our actions.  In order to accomplish this we have been given an extensive set of rules that are, at least in part, intended to maintain a separation between us and the other peoples on the planet.  It is significant that some of the kosher laws are included in our parashah, for they have the effect (besides providing food that enhances our spiritual sensitivity) of discouraging social intercourse between Jews and non-Jews.  There are no kosher restaurants in Fairfield, therefore I don’t go out to eat with friends.

If we take a glance around the American Jewish scene we see exactly why separation is necessary – we are quickly disappearing as a people!  It is estimated that perhaps 20% of the Jewish population in this country holds fast to Jewish law, Jewish traditions and a Jewish way of thinking.  The rest of the population is assimilating and intermarrying at an alarming rate.  Perhaps it is significant that the Talmud tells us that of the Jewish population in Egypt, only 20% actually left.  The others, even though enslaved, were so caught up in Egyptian culture and its depravity that they were not found worthy of redemption and died during the plague of darkness.  The 20% who were redeemed, we are told, merited redemption because they remained distinguished in dress, in language, and in morality, and refused to assimilate into Egyptian culture.  Without trying to sound alarmist, it has been the experience of the Jewish people throughout the millennia that when we get too comfortable and too assimilated in our host cultures (Egypt, Babylonia, Spain, Germany, …) we are in fact turned over to “Nevuchanezzar and his ilk.”

The Jewish people made its choice thousands of years ago to be Gd’s people – we no longer have the ability to opt out of the covenant.  We need Gd much more than we need anything that any nation in the world can offer us.  And furthermore, Gd needs us as it were, for we are the conduit He has chosen to pour His perfection into the world.  Not only does our survival depend on our doing our job properly, the survival of the world depends on it.  For who can live with no connection to the infinite?!

Pirke Avot – Chapter 3 (Mishnah 6)

R. Nechunia ben HaKaneh said: Whoever accepts the yoke of Torah, they [heaven] remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of earning a living.  But whoever casts off the yoke of Torah they place upon him the yoke of government and the yoke of earning a living.

We have spoken some time ago that very few of us are on a level where we can devote ourselves to spirituality on a full-time basis and expect the universe to support us.  R. Nechunia ben HaKaneh, to whom the early Kabbalistic work Sefer HaBahir is attributed, was presumably on that level.  However perhaps we can interpret his statement in the sense that “to the extent we are able to accept upon ourselves the yoke of Torah, to that extent they remove the yoke of government and the yoke of making a living.”  This is of course relevant to each one of us; to paraphrase R. Lau on this Mishnah, a person who is devoted to spirituality is not enslaved to the material world; he is perfectly happy to make do with less, because his focus is on the infinite.  He cites the Maharal (R. Yehuda Loeb of Prague, 16th century, of golem fame):

In his Derech HaChaim, Maharal explains that a person who clings to the Torah is connected to the higher world of spirit.  Since he transcends the realm of the physical, the laws of physicality cannot bind him.  The more he applies himself to Torah, the more does he cling to Gd.  He inhabits an elevated level of reality, one not bound by time or space.

This is living separation with engagement.  This is our responsibility as Jews, and our salvation!