Parashat Aharei Mot/ K’doshim

Parashat Aharei Mot/ K’doshim: Two Aspects of Holiness
Rabbi David Greenstein

Our double Torah portion occupies the central core of our Torah, called by modern Bible scholars “The Holiness Code.” It is an extended working out of the concept of holiness and how it might be experienced by Israel – her priests and common folk, collectively and individually.

The first portion begins by detailing the elaborate service of atonement of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. But the very first words of the portion set up a frightening warning. These instructions are given to Aaron, the priest, “Aharei Mot” – after the death of his two sons, “as they drew near to God’s Presence and then died.” (Lev. 16:1) Thus, warns God, approaching the Holy cannot be done in a casual manner. “He shall not enter the Holy any time [he desires] . . . so that he shall not die.” (Lev. V. 2) This is a dangerous act. The power of the Holy can be deadly.

This aspect of holiness engenders an entire array of attitudes and rules that seek to revere the holy and to secure its inviolate character. At all costs, the holy must not be desecrated. The result of any such profanation is death. Thus, holiness becomes synonymous with restraint, withdrawal, precaution and limitation. The holy precincts of the sanctuary are out of bounds: for certain persons, no matter what their condition, it is always inaccessible, while other persons, depending on their condition, can approach only in the proper manner, at the proper time and place.

Where does the holy reside? It is certainly housed in the space of the Tabernacle. And holiness resides in time, as well. Our portion couples sanctuary and Shabbat together. “You must guard My Sabbaths and revere My sanctuary; I am God.” (Lev. 1930) Shabbat, as Rabbi Heschel so eloquently expounded, is a “sanctuary in time.”

But the Torah teaches that holiness resides in the quality of our behavior. How so? When understood from the perspective of restraint and precaution, holiness demands that we refrain from many actions that we might find attractive. We cannot be dishonest in business or sexually immoral. We cannot consult soothsayers or worship Moloch and we cannot eat certain types of animals and foods. In this way holiness may come to reside, not only in space and time, but in our very selves. “You shall be holy, for I, your Almighty, am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)

Indeed, the penultimate verse of our double portion, which follows upon the exhortation to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher foods, reads: “And you shall be holy to Me, for I, God, am holy, and I have separated you from the nations to be Mine.” (Lev. 20:26) We again notice the motif of separation as a key element in constituting holiness.

In its various laws, restrictions, commands and warnings, our portions create an imposing aura around the Divine. The sense of respecting boundaries extends to our relationships with other humans as well. We are conditioned to equate holiness with caution.

But we notice something else as well. Holiness is not only a negative concept. It is based on a very positive element of love and caring. The verse that tells us of how God separated us explains that the acts of restraint and separation derive from a desire on God’s part to take hold of Israel. Instead of holiness being synonymous only with inaccessibility, we can sense that it is also predicated on the need to connect and to bond together.

The mixing of these two elements can be seen in the law of pe’ah – the mandate to leave the corners of one’s fields unharvested, so that the poor may enter and take the produce for themselves. On the one hand the concept of holiness demands that the owner of the field act with restraint, forbearing from taking what belongs to him. But, at the same time, this act of restraint destroys established boundaries. Access to the field, normally denied to the outsiders, is now granted. The boundary is breached. The motive force that creates that breach is the power of caring. Holiness operates to call us forth even as it warns us to withdraw before its Divine power.

How amazing it is, then, to realize that along with all these regulations and injunctions that make up the Holiness Code, there is one law that runs completely counter to the negative aspect of holiness. This is the commandment to “Love your fellow as yourself..” (Lev. 19:18) Here all boundaries are abolished! There is no distinction between you and me.

If only for a moment, the holy calls for love to eradicate all separations, all fears, all restraints.