Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Why honor parents, Shabbat

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Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Amos 9:7-15

In the midst of the seamless survey of ritual, sexual and ethical legislation that comprises this week's double parashah, we suddenly hear the thundering call: Kedoshim tihiyu, ki kadosh Ani Elokeichem. "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:1). This is arguably the central teaching of Torah: riveting, majestic, commanding. But what does it mean?

Predictably, the classical commentators explode with creative interpretations. Several commentators emphasize that the command is given in the plural, emphasizing the communal quality of Jewish spiritual living.

One commentator revels in the indeterminate context of the command, suggesting that we are asked to see opportunities for holy living in any place, at any moment of our lives.

Another commentator argues that the command to live holy lives applies particularly to the world of work, money and commerce — precisely those places that one might think of as immune to the demand for holiness.

Yet another says this mitzvah is a prediction, not a command, as if to say, "You will be holy, like it or not, because you are made of divine stuff, with a bit of God within you."

Still another notes the connection between divine holiness and human holiness in the verse as casual: "Be holy, so that you may contribute, as it were, to the holiness of God" (see these and other commentaries in Itturei Torah, vol. 4, p. 104).

What a wonderful collection of reflections on this central tenet of Jewish living. Any one of these would make for rich Torah conversation at our Shabbat dinner tables, in our synagogues, among friends this week, and any week. What does living a holy life mean for us? To which areas of our lives does the command apply? Where can we find holy times and experiences? How can we create them and nurture our ability to recognize them when they appear?

Then again, one must note that, in a sense, the Torah answers its own question about how holiness is to be lived. What does Torah say in the verse immediately following its call to holy living? Listen.

"Revere your mother and father, and observe the Sabbaths, for I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:3).

Surely, the Torah has many things to say by way of defining the way of holy living. But it is clearly significant that it starts here with these two mitzvot: honoring one's parents and observing Shabbat. The Hatam Sofer asks what is the relationship between these two mitzvot; I suggest that we ask what is the connection between these two mitzvot and the call to holiness.

The Hatam Sofer says that the commandment to honor one's parents is about looking back and about beginnings. The core of this command is to honor our debt to our parents, who brought us into life. No matter what has unfolded, no matter what life has brought us in the intervening years, no matter what the state of our day-to-day emotional relationship to our parents is or will become, it is they who, in partnership with God, gave us life.

Observing Shabbat, says the Hatam Sofer, is the very opposite. Shabbat is about looking forward, catching a glimpse of what life can be when all work is done. It is a vision of the far distant future when life will be peaceful, when the world will be redeemed.

And so this verse — linking the mitzvah of kibbud av va'eim, honoring one's parents, with the mitzvah of Shabbat, is a pairing of opposites. This verse asks us to develop the widest possible peripheral vision in our spiritual lives, the ability to stay alert both to beginnings and to the future, both to the past and to potential.

What has all this to do with holy living? The Torah text tells us, quite intentionally, to live lives imbued with holiness. Living a life of holiness is about cultivating gratitude for how we were brought to life, about honoring those who brought us here, about knowing that the holy can be present in all the relationships of our lives — both the beautiful and the difficult. And holy living is about knowing the possibilities of another way, of peace, of redemption. And everything in between.

May we hear the call of this week's parashah, and may we be enriched by it.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator, justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. She leads efforts on racial justice and inclusion for the Conservative movement and lives in Los Altos. Learn more about her work at rabbiamyeilberg.com.