Aharei-Kedoshim: Be holy

By Rabbi Amy Eilberg


Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Amos 9:7-15

Serendipitously, I have spent a lot of time this week with people who deeply honor their parents. By this, I mean the sort of people who nearly always speak of their parents with reverence and gratitude.

It is surely a commentary on our times that this sort of attitude is at all remarkable. Once, it was the norm (at least on the surface of things). But it is now one of the burdens of our psychological era that for so many of us, our awareness of our parents' limitations is at the front of our consciousness.

While this perspective can at times bring awareness, freedom and healing to people who were deeply hurt by their parents, we as a generation have also lost something. We have lost what I believe our forbears had, an instinctive sense of awe for the fact that our parents gave us life and cared for us while we grew into the people we are.

This Shabbat, we read one of the Torah's classic statements about the mitzvah of respect for parents. "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Revere your mother and father and keep My sabbaths: I the Lord am your God" (Leviticus 19:2-3).

Throughout the ages, Jews have pondered the central command, "Be holy," and sought to make its practice real in their lives. The question, "How do I live a holy life?" is at least as pressing in contemporary life as it ever was.

This week, one cannot help but reflect on one of the Torah's answers to the question, an answer implicit in the juxtaposition of the command, "Be holy" (verse 2), with the mitzvah of honoring our parents (verse 3). The Torah says to us clearly: Honoring your parents is among the best ways to live a holy life.

In our relationships with our parents, we get as close as we ever can to confronting the Source of our own life. As the Talmud says, "The Blessed Holy One, father and mother are partners in the creation of the human person" (Kiddushin 30b).

Our parents, together with God, brought us into the world. Recognizing our parents' awesome role in our birth brings us close to recognizing the fact that we are created, not the Creator, that we are here through no effort or choice of our own. Gratitude to our parents for caring for us in the best way they could is the basis for gratitude in all other areas of our lives.

In everyday life, we perform the mitzvah of honoring our parents when we listen attentively to our parents' experiences of life, when we offer appropriate care to them as they age, when we teach their wisdom to our children. These are not always easy things to do. Inevitably, in any given moment, we may feel too impatient, angry or fatigued to respond in this respectful way. But every time we bring reverence and awareness to our time with our parents, we practice holy living.

I believe there is a corollary to the Talmud's teaching that God and parents are partners. For those of us blessed with children in our lives, our relationships with our kids are also the stuff of holy living.

Performing the endless and exhausting tasks of caring for babies, summoning the patience and energy to play one more game with a lively 4-year-old, supervising one more round of homework, tolerating one more adolescent outburst, considering thoughtfully when to come close and when to maintain respectful distance with young adult children — these too are building blocks of holy living. In any parenting moment, we have the opportunity to be God's partner, to give our children life and love, meaning and morality.

This does not mean that we are supposed to be perfect children to our parents, or perfect parents to our children. As one classical commentator says on the verse, "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy," we are not expected to be holy in the same way that angels are. We are to live the best lives that we can, here on earth, where God placed us.

When we are given time to be with our parents and with our children (and this, too, is beyond our control), we have the chance to practice being true to the spark of the divine within us. May we receive the strength and wisdom we need to live in this way.