ACHREI MOT (after death) & KEDOSHIM (holy ones) (Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27)
28 APRIL 2018 / 13 Iyyar 5778

Parsha Summary

Achrei Mot God instructs Moses regarding the procedures for the Day of Atonement; sexual prohibitions are then listed.
Kedoshim God describes to Moses many ethical and ritual laws aimed at helping people live lives of holiness. The laws described include some of those recorded in the Ten Commandments, such as respecting one’s parents, keeping the Sabbath and not stealing. God also introduces laws about farming and about belief in supernatural beings. 

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths

In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
As I wander down

The garden paths.
- Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

A D’var Torah in Four Parts.

Part One.

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but as I was driving around this past week I caught a short bit of “The Pattern Problem” on NPR’s Invisibilia. The guiding question: Are the patterns of our lives predictive?

This week, we again have paired parshiot, Achrei Mot and Kedoshim. 

Achrei Mot opens with instructions for the atonement rituals that become Yom Kippur. Implicit in the instructions, the detailed and in many ways extravagant rituals for expiation including putting the sins of the community on an actual goat – the original scape goat – and sending it off into the wilderness over a cliff, is the underlying idea that we can change our patterns. Those instructions come just before a litany of commandments about what it means to live an ethical life  - 79 of them, more than 1/7 of all of the mitzvotin the Torah. 

I found “The Pattern Problem” again and listened to the full 58 minutes. At the center of the story is Tara. Born into an abusive and neglectful family, to parents with drug issues who were involved in gangs, and sexually abused, then raped, at fifteen-years-old Tara was both already a criminal and a mother. As Invisibilia lays out, if life patterns are predictive, we would not expect that some years later she would also graduate at the top of her class in law school, win her case defending her own fitness – on appeal – and be allowed to sit for the Bar. Tara describes the work of breaking the patterns that had become her life: building a list of trusted friends and allies she could call on, healing from the traumas she had experienced, and accessing resources. She also acknowledges that she was lucky. Key to her successes have been the people around her who believed that it was possible, who – unlike the initial panel who deemed her unfit to sit for the Bar because of her past criminal behavior – believed that while the patterns of our lives may inform the future, they cannot predict it.

Invisibilia podcasts are always layered. The other layer in this one was about sociological studies attempting to predict future behavior by close analysis of historical patterns. The studies the podcast considered had all failed. The results showed that while there was correlation based on circumstance, there was not predictability based on previous behavior patterns within those circumstances. The results showed that despite what many of us think, in life patterns are not predictive.

Two of the cores of Judaism are on the one hand studied commitment to tradition and to maintaining patterns of behavior, of practice, and of time, and on the other the deep understanding that atonement is available, forgiveness accessible, and change possible. 

Part Two

Leviticus 18:22.

“You shall not have sex with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination.”

For me, this verse is kind of like a deer tick: Maybe a harmless, annoying arachnid in the same family with mites, or possibly the carrier of a deadly disease. 

I’d like to be able to skip it today, but it’s such a sticky verse, and somehow, it always catches me, and I just can’t. 

But then, I remember. 

Years ago, one of my students reframed it entirely with her own reading. Out doorknocking about marriage equality, when a man came to his door and said he could never support it because of this verse she responded, respectfully, that the way she read it this verse made clear that we should never have sex with someone pretending them to be someone they are not. 

I was standing on the sidewalk a few houses away. I paused to listen. 

“Just a moment, please,” he said. He went back inside. She looked at me and shrugged as only teenagers shrug. He came back with his Bible open to this verse. 

“I’ll be,” he said. “I’ve been a pastor for over 40 years and that possibility had never occurred to me.”

Part Three

In recent days, as I anticipate the arrival of both my mother and my mother-in-law, each moving to Minnesota this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “rise” in the presence of a person of age and honor the presence of a sage – as we are instructed to do in Kedoshim. (Leviticus 19:32.) Although not explicitly linked with “honor/fear your mother and your father, and observe Shabbat” which is almost thirty verses earlier (Leviticus 19:3), they are related.  

In the 13thcentury in Spain, someone anonymous, possibly Aaron HaLevi, wrote the Chinuch, a classic work on the 613 commandments. That author asserted that it is through study and life that we gain wisdom and deepen our relationship with God. In this view, the very act of living over time makes us deserving of respect. 

In Kiddushin 31b the Talmud teaches that honoring one’s parents is observed by helping them eat and drink, clothing and covering them, and helping them go in and out. Feeling respectful or feeling honor isn’t central to the Talmud. It’s not even the point. The point is acting in a way that is honoring and with the intention of respect. 

In Gersonides’ medieval Torah commentary, he argues that this honor isn’t a reward, but a natural result, and respect for parents and people of age will ensure the pattern will continue and succeeding generations will accept the teachings of their elders. 

We know there isn’t a parent – or elder – in history who hasn’t failed in some way. We know because our parents and elders have at times failed. We know because if we have attained any age at all, we have experienced our own failures. Perhaps commanded honor resolves our ambivalence. Whatever our mixture of feelings, our layers of regret and gratitude, of attachment and distance, of like and dislike, we are commanded to dohonor – to maintain this pattern of honor. The doing changes things. It changes . . . everything.

Part Four

“Does your baby want a sticker?” The 4ish-year-old sharing a waiting room with me on Thursday wanted to know. She was looking right at me with serious intent, sticker held out on her thumb. 

“I don’t have a baby,” I said, smiling. 

“Yes, you do!” She exclaimed. “You have to!” She conspiratorially leaned toward me. “I have a sticker for a baby.” Sighing, she rested her elbow on my knee, looked around and settling her eyes on the woman across from me, she whispered, “Think that lady has a baby?”

The Code of Jewish Law underscores a nuance in the commandment to honor our parents, teaching that we should likewise honor our teachers.

In Massechet Sanhedrin 99b: “Reish Lakish said: ‘Anyone who teaches someone else’s child Torah is regarded by the Torah as though he made him’…” 

 “R. Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: Anyone who teaches someone else’s son Torah is considered as though he gave birth to him, as it is written (Bamidbar 3), “These are the generations of Aaron and Moses” and then it is written [only], “These are the names of the sons of Aaron” – to teach you: Aaron fathered them but Moses taught them, therefore they are called his sons.” (Massechet Sanhedrin (19b))

Because of this pattern of teacher to student to teacher, all the way back to Moses, whose teacher was God, we recite a daily blessing expressing gratitude for our teachers of Torah and recognizing that those who teach us also give us life, and have conveyed to us the responsibility for the continuation of our tradition.

Judaism describes the creative process in Genesis with the terms “beriah” (creation), “yetzirah” (formation), and “asiyah” (making). According to commentary, the act of “asiyah” is the provision of the final tools necessary for Creation to operate. The role of the Torah teacher according to Reish Lakish was this kind of making, giving the student the tools they need to empower them and equip them to own this tradition, to become the next link between generations, and to knit together everything we bring with us – everything from our own past and from the past of our people - and everything we might become. 

I don’t have a baby. I do have hundreds of students. 
And some of them do love stickers.

- - - 

Four parts.

Everything we have ever been as a people informs who we are and who we will become, but it isn’t predictive. We aren’t made to be predictable. We are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, holy because God is holy, made to be . . . creative. We hold our tradition and our traditions close, but we have also survived because we have embraced changes like transforming a tax day on the 15th of the month of Shevat into a holiday with a sederand then again into a national day for planting trees. Changes like witnessing the marriage of a woman and a woman – or a man and a man – and calling it kadosh. Holy.   

As we move through these days of counting the Omer , the days between Passover and Shavuot , we are preparing to commit . . . or recommit . . . ourselves to carry our past, envision our future, and live vibrant Jewish lives in the present. 

Our entire history has been waiting to see what we will make of this Judaism of ours.

So much is possible.