AFTER DEATH … HOLINESS
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the timely and insightful sermon which Student Rabbi Miriam Farber gave on Friday evening, April 19, repeated here for the benefit of the few who were there, and of the many who unfortunately were not there.
The local bookstore might be an endangered species, replaced by Amazon and e-books. But, if you find yourself in a Barnes and Noble, or even, imagine, an independent bookstore, somewhere in that shop is a shelf filled with Chicken Soup for the fill-in-the-blank Soul. Chicken Soup for the Teen Soul, Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Cancer Survivor’s Soul – the list of titles goes on and on. Chicken soup, that delicious Jewish penicillin, able to fix any ailment, physical or emotional, is now available in book form to provide sustenance, inspiration, and healing.
There are so many places to turn to when we need comfort. As Jews, as the People of the Book, chicken soup in book-form makes sense. Our own sources – the Torah, the prayerbook, the libraries full of the Jewish wisdom of the ages – provide comfort and healing. When we said Mi Shebeirach a few moments ago, we drew strength from the Torah itself. Chicken soup in its literal form makes sense to us too. Comfort food, whether it is chicken soup, mashed potatoes, ice cream, or whatever dish works for you, is a physical response to our emotional pain. On Monday afternoon, after a harrowing day of watching the news and avidly scanning social media, waiting for my friends in Boston to check in – I turned off the TV, went into the kitchen, and felt calmer making dinner than I had all day.
Our tradition offers us many options for how to respond at times of tragedy and trauma, whether a personal loss or a shared communal event. We have prayers and mourning rituals, and we seek the wisdom of those throughout our history who have struggled with the same questions and struggles we face now.
Our double Torah portion this week is called Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Acharei Mot occurs immediately after the death of Aaron’s sons. The opening words of the portion, which give the parasha its name, mean, “After the death.” The other half of our double parasha, Kedoshim, falls at the center of the Torah. It consists of the Holiness Code, two chapters filled with laws guiding us in our human relationships. The Holiness Code lays out how to build a holy society. The word Kedoshim means holy, appearing at the beginning of Leviticus 19: Kedoshim tihyu – You, the people of Israel, shall be holy.
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. After death…holiness. After moments of trauma and fear, our tradition teaches us, through the juxtaposition of these two portions, that we must respond with acts of holiness and kindness towards our neighbors, towards strangers, to continue to build a holy society, even at the time when that holiness seems least attainable.
The stories of acts of kindness in the past several days have almost blocked out the blackness of Monday’s tragedy. First responders, including medical personnel who only expected to treat dehydrated runners, ran towards the explosions, saving countless lives. They took to heart the words we find in our Torah portion this week, “Lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa – do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Marathon runners, physically exhausted from the exertion of running 26 miles, kept on running past the finish line, to give blood at Boston’s hospitals, embodying the value that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, takes precedence over everything else. Over one thousand Boston residents opened up their homes to host marathon runners from all over the world who found themselves without a place to sleep on Monday night. These generous hosts taught us what it might mean to fulfill the commandment, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him…you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” ’doshim tih’yu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem. You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy. Our human capacity to do holy acts is a result of our creation b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
Earlier tonight, in the Gevurot, we praised God as the someich noflim – the Lifter of the fallen and as the rofei cholim – the Healer of the sick. We credit God with these acts of kindness, but perhaps God acts through us, through the human hands that reach out to lift someone off the ground, through the wisdom of human doctors and nurses, through the human arms that embrace the person who just needs an understanding hug, through the human shoulders upon which the bereaved cry.
The Talmud teaches, “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you; just as God visited the sick, so should you, just as God comforted the mourners, so should you; and just as God buried the dead, so should you.”
Rabbi Shai Held adds, “Just as God is present when people are vulnerable and suffering, so should we be.” We are holy when we act in the ways that God acts, when we run to do our small part to build a holy civilization.
What does it mean for us to be present with suffering, to run towards tragedy, rather than in the opposite direction? For us, this week, it doesn’t need to mean getting on the next flight to Boston or West, Texas, or being glued to the unceasing news coverage that has marked this week. Instead, perhaps the way that we become kedoshim, holy, is through remembering that our holy acts are needed all the time, not only at times of national tragedy. Kedoshim offers two chapters full of ideas for bringing God’s holiness into the world every day, starting with honoring one’s parents and celebrating Shabbat.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat teaches us what this might look like, writing, “God is in the friend who offers to hold a newborn so its exhausted mother can take a shower and get some sleep. God is in those who gather for shiva so the mourner can say kaddish in the presence of a minyan. God is in the friend who makes a pasta salad and brings it to the home of a woman whose husband has slipped a disc and can’t get out of bed. God is in the parent who rocks a sick child in the middle of the night. We find God in our acts of love for one another.”
These everyday acts of kindness bring God into the world, healing, slowly, our brokenness. Kedoshim is the Torah portion at the very center of the Torah. And at the very center of Kedoshim is the most simple, yet most difficult commandment: V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself. Rabbi Hillel taught that this verse is the ENTIRE Torah – all the rest is commentary. The rest of the Torah teaches us how to love our neighbors, giving us concrete tasks to do, whether at a time of tragedy or on any old Thursday, those tasks of caring for the sick and feeding the caregivers, of being present with people when they are most vulnerable.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in an essay in which he struggles with belief in God after the Holocaust, declares, “Faith is living life in the presence of the Redeemer, even when the world is unredeemed.” Rabbi Greenberg suggests that there might be moments of redemption, even if we have not yet achieved a complete redemption for the entire world. Even at our darkest moments, when we lose our faith in humanity, in God, and in ourselves, we still hold onto the belief that redemption is possible, and even near. We search for those moments of redemption, sparks of light and hope that illuminate the dark night of helplessness and despair.
May we reach beyond our own brokenness and pain to make God’s presence felt in our world, by using our hands to ease the pain of the sick, our words to comfort the suffering, and our ears to listen to the voices of the scared. Y’varcheinu Adonai v’yish’m’reinu – May God bless us and protect us.