Culture, Religion

The Vort: Acharei-Mot & Kedoshim – Striving Toward the Unknown

Who is holy? How does one become holy? The pursuit and attainment of holiness is the central preoccupation of this week’s double portion.
Not only people, but animals are holy (see Ex. 13.2) and even clothes can be designated as holy (Ex. 28:2). The spaces we inhabit are endowed with a sacred ‘priestly’ quality (see Num. 35:1-34). Consider the way in which a firstborn calf is not to be used for common work, but rather is set aside and consecrated to God. Similarly, the utensils and vessels (Ex. 25:29) used in the Temple were to serve sacred Temple-related purposes only, and the priests’ garments are to be worn only during sacral service. This is the first component of holiness: acknowledgement of a possible material-spiritual unionthe belief that material objects and creatures of flesh and blood can, in fact, be imbued with or take on aspects of sanctity that elevate them above the merely mundane.
The second component of holiness as spelled out by this week’s portion is the rejection of all actions and objects that contain properties which oppose holiness–all which is “evil” or “base.” The pursuit of righteousness and attainment of holiness can be accomplished only through the active eschewal and, when necessary, banishment of evil.  This theme figures prominently in this week’s double portion, as we are repeatedly told what not to do (and consequently what to do to those who commit these transgressions).  The righteous figure is defined by her/his distance from iniquity, as so aptly captured in images of the first Psalm.   Thus we see the converse relationship between the first, positive component of holiness and the second, negative component of holiness working together to achieve an idealized, if perhaps unattainable, balance. This daunting task is only further complicated by the divine imperative expressed in Lev. 20:7.
“Be Holy as I am Holy” (Lev. 20:7). With this command, God charges us with the impossible. “As I am Holy”: how can we know how God is holy—let alone imitate this holiness ourselves? Without diving into a bottomless ocean of apophatic conjecturing, the answer actually seems to hover in its very construction.  The void in our knowledge of divine sanctity (“As I am holy”), our essential incomprehension of the divine, signals the insuperable distance between God and creation. It is through this striving in imitatio dei that a mortal elevates his material being toward an existence enveloped by holiness. Of course the fundamental impossibility of this proposition cannot be resolved so easily.
In Acharei-Mot Kedoshim the stakes of this relationship (the holy/profane binary) are significantly raised. Whereas in the Ten Commandments, we are told how to act and how not to act, without any attached penalty or reward (the one exception is the 5th commandment, which quickly alludes to a reward). In Acharei-Mot Kedoshim, on the other hand, the prohibition against a rather prodigious litany of possible sinful deeds (Lev. 20:10-11) is  punctuated with grave reminders of their devastating consequences (ranging from banishment from the community to immediate death penalty). Importantly, the incentive to eschew evil is, at first, not stated as emphatically in the negative: before the invocation of penalty, we are given concrete positive motivation to act properly (see for example, Lev. 18:5).  Many of the regulations found in Leviticus 18 resurface almost verbatim in Leviticus 20, but this time in a slightly more impersonal form. Leviticus 18 addresses the listener directly (“the nakedness of your brother,” etc.), whereas Leviticus 20 tends to revert to the “Ish, ish” construction, roughly equivalent to “if one were to…” Perhaps this gesture also formally represents a ‘divine separation’: the enactment of distance in the face of repeated sin.
Is holiness then merely a matter of pursuing the good and resisting the evil? If we return to the opening of Acharei Mot, we find that even according to the text’s own logic, the world is not that simple.  Acharei-Mot picks up where parashat Shmini leaves off, with the untimely demise of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons.  Nadav and Avihu died while performing their priestly duties.  The text cryptically refers to their offering up an “aysh zarah,” a strange fire.  Beyond that, we know little of the circumstances of their deaths.   While for many of the commentators, the Nadav and Avihu incident gives way to a field day of apologetics, we must remember that the text itself only hints at wrongdoing, and a minor infraction at that.  How are we to understand the suffering of ostensibly well-intentioned, if not exceedingly righteous, people? The very beginning of Acharei-Mot Kedoshim seems to defy flagrantly the otherwise axiomatic quality of divine reward and punishment clearly established throughout the rest of the double-portion.  The lack of rationale for their deaths provided back in Parashat Shmini (Lev. 10) is unsettling, and within eight verses, everyone is summoned back to work, business as usual, only to be continued at the outset of Acharei Mot. 
In a rare glimpse of emotional interiority, the text describes Aaron as “silent” upon learning of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths (Lev. 10:3).  It is entirely possible Nadav and Avihu’s intentions were only good. Aaron, the highest priest of a “nation of priests” finds himself at a loss for words. What can one actually say, after all, in the face of such seemingly random tragedy? So too, in attempting to decipher the Divine and grasp the staggering injustices of our times, we may find ourselves at a loss for words. We may never find those elusive words, but it is upon us to resume the work and discover meaning in its continuing mystery. This is holiness.
(One must imagine Sisyphus happy)
 Shabbat shalom.
And this is what is not holy (or at least that from which Leviticus 20 attempts to safeguard us):

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