As the daughter of a CPA, my childhood years were always divided into “tax season” and “not tax season.” From January 1 through April 15, it was known in my house that my mom was going to be focused on work. We would still have dinner as a family, and then she’d sit down at the dining room table, which was her makeshift tax season home office, and start clicking away on the adding machine. Her fingers moved at what I thought was lightening speed on the number pad, adding, subtracting, looking for advantages here, deductions there.
Since tax returns were due not long ago, our household earnings and expenditures are still fresh on my mind. It is a bit sobering to look at budget line items and realize what we actually spend on luxuries like dining out, coffee (because . . . Portland), and entertainment, compared to what we give to charitable causes. Of course we donate annually to various worthy organizations, but in looking back at the previous year, did these align with what we spent on our own extravagances? In other words, did I give as much as I enjoyed?
There is a balance to strike between my desire to help the world through financial contributions and my desire to enjoy myself and the fruits of my labor. This week we read a double Torah portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei Mot picks up the narrative after Aaron’s son’s are killed for offering “strange fire” to God. The laws in this section of text deal mainly with Yom Kippur and the proper relationships we are to have in our lives. Parshat Kedoshim features the laws called the “Holiness Code,” marked with the ways in which we should respectfully treat one another in our community.
In Acharei Mot we begin with the offerings made on Yom Kippur, overseen by the high priest. We read that two goats are to be offered; one is designated for the Lord and the other for “Azazel,” which is sometimes translated as one that is “sent away,” other times as a “scapegoat.” A Hasidic commentary suggests this split teaches us that we should spend as much time, money, and energy on God’s purposes as we do on earthly pleasures. Literally, it means that these two goats are equal. In a broader sense, when we go to tally up our year, we should see a balanced ledger, especially in terms of giving to ourselves and giving to our community. Acharei Mot literally means “after death,” and Kedoshim means “holiness.” Taken together, we can ensure our holiness endures beyond this lifetime if we hold ourselves accountable to improving our world.
I am not what you might call a “scientific” person. (Shocking, I know.) Numbers, equations, and elements have never really been my strong suit. I had a difficult time getting through every one of the high school science classes I was required to take because my mind simply does not click that way. However, at a basic level, something like Newton’s laws of motion are easy enough for me to grasp. You’re telling me an object in motion stays in motion? Now that makes immediate sense in my mind because I can visualize it. Unless an obstacle or some other force interacts with an object, it will continue to remain at rest or remain in motion.
But as I said, I’m not that into science. On the other hand, I am into metaphors. This law of motion appears to apply to so many things in life beyond just the physical. Whether it’s a bad situation that spirals out of control or a lucky streak that carries us for a time, life moves us. Sometimes we act to try to speed it up or slow it down, but life is continually moving.
Our Torah portion this week, parshat Kedoshim, speaks to that very nature of life. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code” which helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding. These are the laws that govern how we treat one another, how we care for one another, and how we establish a society based truly on respect.
In these laws comes one of the better known phrases in the Torah: “Thou shall not put a stumbling block before the blind or insult the deaf.” This mitzvah serves to remind us not to make someone else’s life harder, even and especially when it’s done anonymously.
At a deeper level, a “stumbling block” could be any force that acts on a person “in motion.” An object thrown upward would continue its trajectory were it not for gravity acting on it to bring it down. The Torah is instructing us not to be that force. Do not weigh someone else’s life down simply because you can.
Why stop there? This law applies to how we get in our own way as well. You won’t soar to greatness if you let your own negative forces slow you down. That may sound like it belongs on a cheesy inspirational poster underneath a picture of a cat on a tightrope, but it’s still true. How much more could you achieve if you made a conscious effort to keep all those cynical, defeatist thoughts out of the equation? Let’s be honest. It’s not rocket science.
Being a parent means 1) being a problem solver and 2) teaching our children how to solve problems. This too is Torah.