While we’re not currently in the season of Hanukkah, a Mishnah that I love to teach about Hanukkah comes to mind as I read this week’s Torah portions. Hillel and Shammai, the great rabbinic sparring partners, have a debate about which way to light the candles. Should you add one each night or subtract one? At the same time, the Mishnah also introduces the concept that our rabbis taught that the mitzvah of Hanukkah is (for one person to light) one candle for the household. And for those who embellish, one candle for each and every member of the house. Then Hillel and Shammai get into the debate about eight candles and their significance.
This debate is about more than a ritual. It symbolizes our desire to assign deeper meaning to the ordinary objects we’re using. In the case of Hanukkah, the candles represent something bigger than just glowing light. They represent ourselves, our community, our world.
This week we read a double parshah, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Parshat Acharei Mot deals with what happens after Aaron’s sons have offered up “strange fire” to God and with certain forbidden relationships between human beings. The structure of this section of text pushes us to look at our relationships with both God and others and see the boundaries and intimacies of each relationship. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code” that helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding.
In the context of these two Torah portions, we read about the way Aaron was supposed to prepare for Yom Kippur, specifically the public cleanse and purification for atonement. Aaron is to take a bull, a ram, and two goats, and wear (four) sacral linen garments. Leviticus Rabbah interprets each of these items and connects them to stories of Aaron’s past through his ancestors. The bull recalls the merit of Abraham’s offering when the messengers of God came to him. The ram is a reminder of Isaac’s readiness to be sacrificed at the Akeidah. The two goats symbolize the meal Jacob prepared for his father when he received his blessing instead of his brother. The four linen garments represent Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. In essence, the midrash reads this offering as a way for Aaron to enter into his holy work knowing that he carries on the legacy of his forebears.
This brings us back to Hanukkah and the idea that the objects aren’t just objects. They are us. This concept of hearkening back and assigning human identity is part of contemporary Judaism on other holidays as well. On Shabbat we can light two candles, as has become tradition, or we can light one candle for each person in our house. When we atone at Yom Kippur, we know that we stand in atonement with the merit of ourselves and also the merit of those who have come before us in all generations. What’s so beautiful about Judaism is that you can look at our observance and see a lot of traditions, or you can look at our traditions and see a lot of us.
My dad told me I couldn’t have my ears pierced until I was 16. Over time I eventually wore him down to 8 years old, and then when I turned 16, I put a second hole in my ears. When I was 17 years old, all I wanted was to pierce my belly button. I begged my parents for permission to do so, but they kept telling me no. I vowed that when I was 18 I would just go do it myself. I was convinced that a belly button piercing was what I needed, but my father kept reminding me that as Jews we don’t pierce our bodies beyond our ears. I was a teenager, so needless to say I didn’t care. Right after I turned 18, my parents gave in (or gave up) and said they were ok with a pierced belly button as long as I went to a clean and safe place to do it. Of course once I had their permission, my rebellious urge was gone, and I never went through with it. To this day, my mom claims that was their plan all along.
When it came to body piercing (and ear piercing), my dad’s argument had always been that the Torah says we don’t pierce or permanently change our bodies. Supposedly the consequence for doing so was that you could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery after you died. Well, he was partially right.
This week we read Parshat Kedoshim. The structure of this section of text pushes us to look at our relationships with both God and others and see the boundaries and intimacies of each relationship. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code” that helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding.
The Holiness Code goes deeper than our standard interpersonal relationships. It focuses on the holiness of the relationships we have with ourselves, our neighbors, and with God. One of the ways in which we establish and maintain holiness is through our bodies. Chapter 19, verse 28 teaches, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” We are taught through this verse that holiness means respect for one’s body. The prohibition against incising any marks on your flesh is meant to teach us that our bodies are already perfect vessels, and we shouldn’t permanently change them with piercings or surgery.
While tattooing or piercing does not prohibit a Jew from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, those things are technically prohibited. But I’ll be honest. As far as I’m concerned, what you do to your body is really none of my business. The real takeaway here is how the Torah reminds us of the importance of positive body image. Parshat Kedoshim reminds us that holiness is not reserved for the synagogue or prayer or even politeness around others. We have a sacred mandate to view ourselves and our bodies as vessels for holiness and to treat them as such. And if my children ask to pierce their ears before 16, only time will tell if I can hold out longer than my parents did.
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.