Mission possible: Be holy, even if God feels distant

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1–20:27

Amos 9:17–9:15

Remember how the Blues Brothers used to say, “We’re on a mission from God”? When John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd said it, it was comedy, and if you went around telling people that you were on a mission from God, people might think you were a little strange. This week’s Torah portion teaches us, however, that each of us is indeed on a mission from God.

Throughout the “holiness code,” as this part of the Torah is known, God says: Revere your mother and father, I am God. Leave the corner of your field for the poor, I am God. Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, I am God. Respect your elders, I am God. Love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. Love the stranger, I am God.

Over and over, the Torah instructs us how to be holy, and then says, “I am God.” Why? It’s got to be more than God saying, “I’m God and I said so.” Rather, it seems that we make God’s presence known in the world through our actions, and so “I am God” depends on our doing these acts of holiness. In other words: We’re on a mission from God! God needs us to do holy acts so that God’s holiness is manifest.

This holiness code is the centerpiece of the whole Torah. It says Kedoshim Tehiyu, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1). It contains what Rabbi Akiva said is “the great principle of the Torah”: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the basic stuff of being a mensch, of being a good person.

But what’s interesting about this section that says Kedoshim Tehiyu, “be holy,” is that it’s a double portion. Before Kedoshim Tehiyu comes the portion of Acharei Mot, which is “after the death” — that is, after the deaths of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to God. What this refers to is something that happened a few weeks earlier — the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, priests killed at the altar for offering “strange fire.” We never understand exactly why they are killed, but we are reminded of their deaths here at the beginning of our code about how to be holy.

The Torah doesn’t just say be holy and love your neighbor. Rather Kedoshim Tehiyu, “be holy,” is paired with Acharei Mot, “after the death.” In other words, death is the backdrop for the Torah’s code of how to be holy, how to be on a mission from God.

Why is this? Torah Scholar Avivah Zornberg teaches that the reason Nadav and Avihu offered strange fire is that when they were doing their service at the tabernacle, the presence of God didn’t appear right away at the altar. These priests were intoxicated with God, they needed ecstasy, and they couldn’t endure a time of doubt and waiting. So they tried to force God to be present by pushing a magic button. Indeed, there’s a midrash that says they were drunk.

But the Torah seems to be saying that strange fires don’t work; you can’t push a magic button. God’s presence can’t always be felt, and life is not always intoxicating. There is suffering, disappointment and death — and those are the very conditions from which we must pursue holiness. It’s easy to say Kedoshim Tehiyu — be holy, love your neighbor — when life is easy. But to say it Acharei Mot, after the deaths, then it really means something.

It’s Acharei Mot, after the deaths, that we need Kedoshim Tehiyu, be holy.

It’s when God seems distant, when hope has been shattered or when we face a loss that we most need to reach out in love, that we most need to be on a mission from God.

It’s interesting that the rabbis explain the command to be holy as Perushim Tehiyu, be separate. But it seems that being holy also has another meaning: Be connected. Our lives are already filled with separation and disconnection; our lives are Acharei Mot. Because of that, we need Kedoshim Tehiyu, to be holy, to be connected to each other, to be on a mission from God.

Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. This is her final Torah column for j. She writes: It’s been an honor and pleasure to share Torah with you these last few years; please come visit at www.kolshofar.org.


Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.