Parashat Emor: the importance of knowing our boundaries.

And the Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for the dead among his people”(Leviticus 21:1)

Judaism likes the idea of boundaries and separations, of creating different categories in order for the world to work properly. From the moment the Torah narrative begins with the chaos of primeval creation, God first creates the earth and the heavens and then begins to separate everything out – light from darkness, dry land from the sea, the firmaments from the earth, day from night.   The psalmist tells us that God gave the earth to people to live on, while the heavens belong to God. They are different and separate domains.

Biblically the Jewish people were divided into the Levitical priesthood (descendants of the tribe of Levi) and the rest of the Israelites; and the Levitical priesthood itself was divided into the Cohanim (the priests who were direct descendants of Aaron), and the Levi’im – the priests whose work was to service the Cohanim in their duties. Different and separate domains.

Creating categories and boundaries is what we do. We filter and we sort, we include and exclude, we oblige and prohibit.

In the case of the priesthood there are rules which separate them from the rest of the Jewish people. So, for example, even today someone whose family tradition is that they are Kohen will avoid going too close to a dead body – Jewish cemeteries will have rooms and paths to allow the Kohanim to approach in an halachically acceptable way. Whatever we Reform Jews may think about the division amongst the Jewish people which still puts an extra load on the families of the Levitical priesthood, (the Reform response takes into account both the reality that whatever you may believe about your family the hereditary priesthood cannot be a status you can be certain about; and also has moved away from laws specifically to enable Temple ritual, so given that there are substantial disabilities in Jewish law for people identified as Cohanim, we have decided that this category is no longer of importance to us and have effectively removed this particular boundary), we are aware of its ramifications.

 Why must a priest not come into contact with a dead body? It may be a matter of chukkat ha’goy, of copying and assimilating the traditions of the people with whom we live until we are indistinguishable from them, blurring the boundaries of our identity. Egypt we know had a cult of death, with huge tombs and sarcophagi in which the embalmed bodies of the dead were prepared for the afterlife. The rich would stay rich; the poor would stay poor even after death. Torah most certainly is reacting to some of this cult as it reacts to many of the practices of the people amongst whom the Israelites were living. Our whole imperative rejects the cult of death for the cult of life and living, with Moses reminding us in parashat Nitzavim to “Choose Life”.

It may be that the ritual impurity is less to do with the problem of being in a fit state to offer a Temple sacrifice as keeping in a fit state a very important boundary. The separation boundary between life and death is the most powerful that we experience and it must be kept as tight and impermeable as possible. The verse that ended last week’s portion Kedoshim, (Lev 20:27) reminds us “a man or a woman that divines by a ghost or a familiar spirit shall surely be put to death… their blood shall be upon them”

We must keep our focus on this life, in this world. We must pay attention to how we live here and now, rather than make assumptions about, or even try to make forays into, whatever exists outside of our own domain.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of operating within our own world, and within our own time. It contains the laws around sanctifying time – the festivals are given within this sidra, Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All of these not only set aside time for particular worship, they also remind us of the boundaries of nature, the limits of our behaviour, the importance of stopping the everyday and mundane and remembering the reason for our being.

We are known as an Am Kadosh – often translated as a holy people. But Kedushah is not about holiness in the sense that we are specially sacred and righteous and blessed. We are an Am Kadosh because we follow the rules of Kedushah – of separating out and making (and keeping) boundaries. The root of the word k’d’sh means to make different or separate – hence when we marry (Kiddushin) we make that relationship a different one, we separate our partner for a unique relationship. When we think about our dietary habits, eat certain foods and not eat others, separate milk and meat products and so on, we are forcing ourselves to think about what we consume, rather than mindlessly devouring anything presented to us. When we give a proportion of our income to help others as a matter of principle rather than viewing all our income as being rightfully only to be spent on ourselves; When we choose not to automatically adopt the customs of the surrounding culture but to think about our own identity and absorb the best of what we see around us BECAUSE it is the best of what we see; When we keep in place these boundaries we may find we are able to negotiate the world with more clarity. I am not suggesting that we pull down the defences in order to protect any notional purity or to keep out the modern world, but that knowing who we are and in what area we should focus our energies will give us a greater chance in partnering with God in the work of completing the creation.

Parashat Emor reminds us of the importance of knowing our boundaries. It reminds us that to be Kedoshim – the imperative of last week’s sidra – we have to clarify our context and so to understand it and be able to work within it.

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Holiness is not a state to achieve, but a process to live by.

א וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

Sidra Kedoshim is very familiar to us, echoing as it does the Ten Commandments, and taking the soubriquet “the holiness code”. Reform Jews read it on Yom Kippur as a reminder of what the ethical life would look like. We are aware of its physical and spiritual place in the Torah – it lies at the very centre of the scroll, and in the centre of Kedoshim itself is the golden rule – “love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Eternal”.   This law was quoted by Hillel in the first century, albeit cast into the negative “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”; Rabbi Akiva declared it to be the great principle of the Torah. And many Christians know it through its repetition by Jesus, who called it second only to the commandment to love God.

So when we look at the great commandment which acts as a chorus throughout this sidra –“You shall be Kadosh (Holy) as I the Eternal am Kadosh (Holy) – we tend to immediately think of the great dictum which, if followed, will bring about a better world for us all. Indeed, if we behave towards our neighbour with as much care as we behave towards fulfilling our own needs, we would automatically be living more saintly lives than we do now. But the sidra goes on, and the detail in the second half gives a slightly different flavour to the response ‘Be Kadosh as I the Eternal your God am Kadosh”

It goes on to talk about kilayim – not mixing different kinds or species, be they animal or agricultural. It talks about sha’atnez, not mixing wool and linen together in garments. The laws of Kilayim are elaborated in Talmud which expounds and clarifies the laws of this occasionally strange principle.

It goes on to talk about the prohibition of the fruit of new trees – for three years after a tree is planted its fruit may not be used at all, in the fourth year the fruit is used only for religious celebration, after that, it is permitted to use the fruit of the tree.

And then come a whole lots of individual prohibitions or warnings – don’t eat anything with the blood; don’t practise divination or soothsaying, don’t round of the side growth on your head or your beard, don’t mutilate your flesh or mark yourself in any way. Don’t make your daughter a prostitute. Keep the Sabbath and venerate the sanctuary. Don’t turn to ghosts or familiars. Show deference to the old. Don’t wrong the stranger. Don’t falsify weights or measures.

It is such an odd mix, such a strange set of things for the narrator of the biblical text to be perturbed about. Some of the injunctions are self-evidently good to do, others read to the modern eye as ritual behaviour with no obvious meaning and some superstition implicit within them. What are we to make of not rounding the hair of the head? Or of saving the fruit for 5 years before having the use of it?

The second half of sidra Kedoshim challenges our understanding of what it means to be holy. We are out of the spiritual world and solidly into a more practical one. Holiness becomes less a matter of intention and more a matter of action. Holiness becomes something we do in relation to other people as well as a private matter between ourselves and God.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with holiness. Not simply that I found it hard to achieve in my life, but that put as a spiritual and saintly proposition, it made me feel a bit queasy. Maybe it is my solid and gritty northern upbringing, but the way some forms of piety and piousness are expressed don’t make me feel spiritually uplifted, rather they make me want to kick the individual offering their religiosity in such a way.

It has been a consistent feature of my religious life that the most holy people I encounter are also almost universally the earthiest. I recall a verse of a song by my teacher Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet which affectionately described – some may say lampooned – all the people who had seriously affected his religious growth, called “come and join the cavalcade”. The verse that comes to mind goes something like   “it is not easy to watch the prophet speak. He dribbles on occasion and he’s far too fond of sweets”. I won’t reveal which revered teacher is being described, but I can assure you that, of all the great of his generation, he is certainly the one most able to transmit a sense of the immanent yet transcendent God in such a way that it is almost as if a map of the religious journey is in your hand.

I have a problem with holiness – it seems to have acquired in modern parlance a sort of righteousness, the sanctity and piety of which have suppressed any human odour; it seems not to belong to ordinary life, but to the extraordinary and spiritually chaste living of the favoured few. But that is truly not what Jewish holiness is about – for the Jewish mind the act of holiness is one that we do, and we are made holy by our actions – think of all those blessings which begin with the formula – Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, – Who makes us kadosh (holy) by the obligations to do that God puts upon us.   Look at some of the injunctions in Kedoshim – they are about trying to avoid crossing the sort of boundaries which are in place to protect the vulnerable, or to provide some self discipline, or to prevent us falling into a world view of chaos and randomness that would sap the spiritual yearning from the most determined of us.

The bible has a truly blunt and honest view of human behaviour. It doesn’t expect people to be angels – indeed it is well aware that, while made in God’s image, human beings have potentially everything of God’s image within us – we have the potential to do great evil as well as great good.   We have the potential to do nothing for vast stretches of time and by our inactivity to let evil flourish. The bible sees that people, by nature, often behave selfishly, or thoughtlessly. We face the reality that the bible wouldn’t waste time legislating against things that people would never think of doing, or, having thought of them, do. So the lists of prohibitions gives us a fascinating insight into what some people at least, got up to, and we are able to recognise ourselves in the categories of behaviour if not in the particulars. How many of us take our agriculture and food chain for granted, not caring how a crop was grown, what conditions the labourers in the field worked under, what chemicals were used, what the effect on the environment might have been. How many of us care about how the crops were harvested and transported? Yet here in Leviticus there are indicators about what is important – that the crop should be planted thoughtfully, that the harvest is not ours alone, but in some way is also the creation of system we have no power over. And how many of us practise some form of superstitious magic to gain some control over our worlds – maybe not divination or soothsaying any more, but certainly ways in which we try to ascertain the future so as to be able to feel in control. We might not believe in horoscopes or astrological charts, but we derive some obscure comfort from them too often to be able to admit to them having no effect whatsoever. The abdicating of responsibility and the expectation that others will look after us – or not – is one that is ingrained in many of us, usually without the concomitant expectation that we must do our bit to take care of the more vulnerable aspects of the world.

The biblical kedushah is an amazing concept. It is a recognition of our frailty and our vulnerability, of our self centredness and our fear of the world. And it says – this is who we are, and we are going to build on and use these fault lines to strengthen ourselves. Rav Kook too talks a great deal about holiness, and his premise that the more damaged (the more knots we have in his terms), the more complex and convoluted our personalities, the more we have the potential to become something different and holy – as we work through our faults, so we become more experienced about the world, more compassionate about others, more honest about possibilities.

Holiness is not an unachievable goal, nor is it reserved for the good guys who never do anything really wrong. It is the inevitable result of our struggling with ourselves honestly, of our getting to know who we are and making real efforts to adapt that knowledge into the real world. There is nothing other-worldly about the Jewish concept of holiness, nothing necessarily spiritual or ethereal. Holiness is the outcome of our living in the world, of our focusing on the present and being aware of our behaviour and the impact it might have. It is the result of honest dealings and honest struggle. When Jacob met the angelic figure at the Ford of Jabok and struggling all night was permanently wounded in his groin, the supernatural figure blessed him and changed his name to Israel, saying he was one who had struggled with God and prevailed. Yet immediately the name Jacob is used again, as he tries to slide his family past his brother without effecting the reconciliation his brother so wanted. The name Jacob is used interchangeably with the name Israel for the rest of his life. Jacob isn’t any more holy for the experience, just wiser and more thoughtful and occasionally more tuned in to the right behaviour. I take comfort from that double use of name, because it tells me something that makes sense for me. Holiness is not a state to achieve; it is a choice to make every minute of the day, a process which we follow again and again, sometimes taking the holy way, sometimes not. It is in the struggle that we encounter God, that we become a little more what we could be.   We grow in holiness with every encounter, but we remain rooted in the world. And that is the way life should be.

Shemini: When Silence is the only response

One of the saddest moments in bible is found in Shemini – Aaron and his sons have just been inaugurated as priests in a week long ceremony and now the tent of meeting is being dedicated. The first offering is given by Aaron and is accepted as a fire descends from the heavens to consume it. The people bow down and worship. And then Nadav and Avihu the two older sons of Aaron offer a strange fire before God and the fire descends once more from the heavens – to consume their lives.

Aaron’s response – “va’yidom Aharon” – is to be silent. How can this be? To have finally reached the climax of priesthood only to see two children of your children destroyed by the object of that ministry. To be a father twice bereaved yet not to protest and shout out. Why does Torah tell us that Aaron, the man whose speech was smooth and fluent and who would act as the mouthpiece of his brother Moses in Egypt, had no words at this moment?

Words can be so healing – we are taught always to express clearly what we need in order to communicate with others, to use words to acknowledge our feelings be they painful or joyous. From private prayer to modern psychotherapy we are taught about the power of words to change or to complete us. Creation begins with words: God speaks and creation comes about. We transmit our tradition in storytelling, we see ourselves as a people who argue with God, who are not ever silenced – we are a noisy, challenging people who will argue with a text, giving voices to the long dead sages of our tradition. Yet “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). And this silence is seen in our tradition as a right and proper response – the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah comments on this verse: “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Clearly we have to look deeper. Why is the silence of a man so unfairly hit by tragedy seen in our tradition as a response to be rewarded? Why should he not be crying out against a God who did not protect the young men whose only wrong seems to have been an excess of religious fervour, who certainly did not deserve to die?

In the Talmud we find the statement that “the world is preserved only because of those who stop themselves from speaking out in difficult moments of strife” (B.T. Hullin 89a). We also find that it is an attribute of God to be seen to be silent at such times, – a rereading of the verse ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ is understood not as “who is like you amongst the Elim – the mighty gods of other peoples”, but rather as “Who is like You, able to be silent?” – “Ilmim” (BT Gittin 66a). Sometimes silence is the only response. Anything else would diminish the enormity of the experience.

In Jewish tradition one does not speak to a mourner until the mourner speaks to you. It is a tradition that understands the depth of grief. When grief is intense any statement is bound at best to be irrelevant and at worst a serious intrusion. That is not to say we ignore a mourner or their grief, we do not cross the street to avoid meeting them nor leave them in their pain – but there is a communication that surpasses language, which any words would disrupt or divert. In mourning that may be simply sitting with and being with the mourner, in shared silence. It may be a warm embrace or a fleeting touch of the hand. It may be a meeting of the eye, a moment of contact which says “I am here and I care”. There is nothing more to offer than the compassionate presence – certainly there is nothing further to say.

There are times in our history when words are not just unhelpful – they might be actively destructive, causing a break in the relationships between us or between us and God. And these are the times when the silence of Aaron becomes understandable.

The text emphasizes that Aaron’s two elder sons were acting “before the Eternal.” Both the offerings they made and their death were “before the Eternal.” The plain sense of the text indicates that, apparently moved by religious fervour, they added an extra incense to the usual incense offering without having been commanded to do so. That is all. One would have thought this is no great crime for young men who have just finished their priestly training and are one day into the work. They are simply intoxicated with the role, acting out of extraordinary piety to add yet more offerings to God. At most they are guilty of what we are told in a later passage in Leviticus – that “They drew too close to the presence of God” (Leviticus 16:1). Surely we could expect for Aaron to respond to their violent and sudden deaths by arguing with God, just as Moses had done on several occasions before this. Surely Aaron could justify the actions of his sons to God and demand some compassionate – even miraculous – response. But Aaron was silent. He made no attempt to communicate his anguish – and surely his anger – to God.

This is unusual in our picture of Aaron, which has been improved in rabbinic teachings so that he becomes an active pursuer of peace (Avot 1:12 etc), a man who advocates peace and who is the earliest practitioner of what we now call “shuttle diplomacy. Yet in this situation his skills are redundant. There is nothing to do, nothing to say. His tragedy is too raw, too personal, too much. Should he speak what could he say? If he is able to put into words even the smallest part of his pain he would surely only create a rift between himself and God – how could he not? And what benefit would his speech produce? God is clearly not going to perform a miracle, turn back time, resurrect his dead. There is nothing, nothing at all, he can say.

This week we will be commemorating an event as raw, as incomprehensible, as painful as the event in Shemini – it will be Yom HaShoah and we will be coming together to be with each other in order to remember. But what will be able to say in the face of the enormity, the singular extra-ordinary time when our people were persecuted and destroyed with terrifying efficiency on a grand scale by national governments? There are those who railed against God, whose words led them to a permanent rift, losing their faith and any possibility of comfort from our Jewish God. There are those who attempted to make sense, who spoke of the implicit guilt of the victims – just as there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu must have been guilty of arrogance or even idolatry. And those whose attempts to make sense of the Shoah lead them to see the State of Israel as having emerged from it as a sort of divine compensation. There are those who are able to forgive God for the silence in the Shoah, but will never forgive people and so live lives of alienation and bitterness. But any response is too small, too diminishing of the event, pointless. Some things require us not to understand, not to argue against, not to justify nor to console – they are things about which the only response is a silence in which we can be. Not a silence that suppresses or ignores, but a silent being together.

During the service of brit milah (circumcision) there is a verse taken from the book of Exodus about the blood of the Passover lamb – God says “va’omar lach b’damayich chayee” –I say to you by your blood you shall live. The Dubner Maggid asks – why the extra word – lach – for you? And answers his own question – this is about the precious blood that is spilled – God will respond, will not leave you in despair. But B’damayich chayee can also be translated a different way – damayich does not have to mean ‘your blood’ but ‘your silence’. Sometimes it is only with silence that we can go on – any other response would be too destructive to us, would drag us into a vortex of pain from which we would be unable to emerge.

I cannot find it in me to believe that the shedding of blood is the call to which God will always respond, regardless of the teachings of our tradition. But I can understand the need for silence, that silence sometimes is the only thing that will allow us to go on, to not be desperately searching all the time for an elusive explanation, for a response that will make sense, for a grand plan in which such terrible sacrifice is given honourable meaning. Like Aaron knew, some things are beyond words, beyond reason, beyond our ability to contain or order their meaning. Sometimes you just have to simply be, to witness, to remember, and to be with the people who themselves experienced the horror in compassionate wordless togetherness.