Rabbi Avi Kannai
Former Rosh Kollel Memphis (2005-2008)
This week we are reading two Torah portions – Achrei Mot and Kdoshim. Even though the two titles – Achrei Mot and Kdoshim are words taken from the beginnings of the two portions respectively – thus, they are fairly apart from each other in the text – we sometimes relate to them as if they are juxtaposed. The terms ‘Achrei Mot Kdoshim’ mean literally ‘after the death of the holy ones’.
This Dvar Torah is written with tears and sorrow, right after we heard of the passing away of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Zecher Tzadik Livracha. I can’t think of a better figure that suits the description: ‘Achrei Mot Kdoshim’. Among many other things, he was the Rebbe of the founder of Torah MiTzion and many of our shlichim, myself included, serving as a great model of inspiration to all of us. The following Dvar Torah is influenced from the figure and the teachings I have witnessed first eye from this giant and we dedicate it in his blessed memory.
The book of Vayikra starts with laws regarding the offerings in the Tabernacle. As such, there are many rules concerning the proper way the Kohanim should conduct the service in the Tabernacle. Consequently, our sages called the book of Vayikra – ‘Torat Kohanim’ – The Torah-Teachings for the Kohanim-Priests. At the beginning of the first portion which we read this week, Achrei Mot, we learn about the fact that only the highest priest, the Kohen Gadol, is allowed once a year to enter the holiest place following a very exact procedure. Reading the first part of the book of Vayikra, one could have come up with the conclusion that holiness is limited to a very exclusive group, the priests. Ordinary people are both unable and not required to be holy. Holiness is something detached from ordinary people – they are doomed to be trapped in the limited mundane life. This notion has two important implications:
A. It is a very pessimistic way to see human nature. People cannot elevate themselves substantially and reach spiritual heights.
B. The responsibility of people is very limited. Given they are incapable; we can’t expect and demand from them to take responsibility. Rather, there are designated people, the priests, who take care of the spiritual needs and requirements, doing this job for us, while we, the ordinary people, are exempt from these requirements.
In sharp contrast to this line of thought, the Torah opens the second portion we read this week with a radical and revolutionary statement:
דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם””
“Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the L-rd your G-d am holy.” (19,2)
As opposed to the impression which could have been made from the intensive focus on the priests, G-d declares here that the entire people of Israel – All the congregation of the children of Israel – every single one – are both expected and capable of becoming holy! Every one has the potential to be a holy human being and no one is exempt from this task.
But what does it mean to be a holy human being? Can we meet the challenge? How?
Here comes the second radical message. The Torah teaches us in the very same pasuk which was quoted above, that the reason why we are both able and expected to be holy is because the L-rd our G-d is holy. We have the potential and the requirement to come as close as possible to G-d, to imitate Him, to follow His ways. We can all be ‘little G-ds’; we just need to believe we can and choose to work on it.
Accordingly, the list of commandments listed right after this pasuk, which fulfilling them paves the way to become holy might be surprising at first glance. Being holy does not only include fulfilling commandments which are usually categorized as ‘between man and G-d’. Rather, there are many commandments on the list which are the prototypes of ‘between man and his fellow man’. “You should love your fellow like yourself – I am the L-rd”, Be sensitive to the blind, the deaf, the stranger, pay on time to your employee, and more and more. This is holiness! While living mundane life, not running away to some artificial “spirituality”, one is demanded to follow His ways – being just and merciful, implementing the spiritual and moral values in this world. If one works on this challenge and progresses, he is becoming a holy human being. Every single one is both capable and commanded to do so. And if we all will, our entire world will be a much better place to live in.