Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Parshat Kedoshim: Rules and Regs and Us

My question to begin this discussion is: Why/ does it feel sometimes that Judaism is way too much about rules, structure, discipline and more regulations than we can handle?

During non leap years, these two Parshiot are read as a single unit as was just the case in 5769 (2009). When I teach as well as learn about these Parshiot as a joint entity, I find that there is an interesting format that is significant in its instructive mode. It works when they follow each other as well but the structure is nothing short of remarkable when these chapters are taken as one Parsha.

First of all, Acharei Mot begins with a narrative that we are told occurs after the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu as a result of their offering of the aish zarah, the strange fire, to G-d. To be sure, the fact that they are so severely punished is problematic for many. Clearly this, as so often is the case, is not as simple as a matter of what is good and what is bad. After all, their intentions were honorable and they were good people, according to what we are taught (isn’t this often the case?); and they were, as the text teaches, coming before G-d (VaYikra 10: 1) when a fire came and consumed them. What did they do wrong? The text explains in this chapter that comes in Parshat Shemini that G-d did not command them to come forward with this offering (VaYikra, 10:1).

So, given our modern sensibilities, coming up with a creative gift is thought of as a good thing, yes? What exactly is the problem being presented? Here, we see a marked difference between American and Western thinking and Jewish instructions. Throughout the Torah and all of our instructive texts, the point is made that it is clearly preferable to do what we are told than to do something because we want to. We are supposed to do what G-d asks of us precisely because G-d asks us to do so and this is the case whether the request (and the resulting laws) make sense or do not do so.

Now, the text of this Parsha turns to the concern of those practices in which other nations and people are engaged that the Jewish Nation/B’nai Yisrael is not to do. These practices are not conducive to the type of sanctification that G-d requires from G-d’s Am HaNivchar. Various forms of practices associated with sacrifices are not acceptable for our Jewish form of Karbanot. Note must be taken that this very word that we use for sacrifices denotes a coming close to G-d. Practice this element of one’s religious life without heeding to the specific instructions given and no matter what the intention, like Nadav and Avihu, their efforts will be for naught.

After the injunctions about what we are NOT to do in offering our Karbanot to G-d, the text (Chapter 18) turns to unacceptable practices of both the Canaanites and the Egyptians, amongst whom the B’nai Yisrael have lived. These practices include a wide array of sexual practices that are not acceptable to the B’nai Yisrael in striving to achieve the Kedusha towards which they are to work. These practices are perceived as unseemly and many of them fall into the overall category of incest and make sense to us. Other practices regarding shaming another human being or profoundly disrupting one’s life also make sense to us. These Mishpatim act as and form a code of lawful interactions with others. There are also those laws that refer to restrictions placed upon us by G-d in order that we are the Goi Kadosh, the sanctified people that G-d wants us to be. These may or may not make sense to us, as can often be the case with Hukim. This is not the point however. Whether or not we understand the restrictions and the prohibitions, note must be taken of the repeated refrain that continually occurs every few verses, namely the words “I am the Lord your G-d.” [A great exercise is to count these up!] This is the reason that is given for each of these laws, no matter the category and whether or not they make sense to us.

Once these practices are established as verboten, we are enjoined to follow the teaching of 19:2, namely Tehiyu Kedoshim that is we must observe the required separation and sanctification because the Lord our G-d is also separate and sanctified (holy, so many say!). While the previous chapter warns us against the practices of others, Chapter Nineteen instructs the B’nai Yisrael ever so clearly on those laws that make this group unique and joined together, above and beyond those restrictions based upon practices of others that may be unseemly and inappropriate. This chapter now tells us what must be done to maintain the level of Kedusha for which members of the B’nai Yisrael would now be eligible if they were to restrain from the practices of others. These prescribed practices and limitations are required for the Am Nivchar to maintain their position as
G-d’s chosen nation.

We are actually taught that this chapter is the middle of the Five Books of Moshe, Chameshet Chomshei Torah and is called the “Sanctification Code.” Further, in the middle of this chapter appears the teaching that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, for I am the Lord your G-d.” This becomes the focal point of this assortment of laws that provide us with a diet for healthy living, both as individuals and as community. We must remember that this teaching is meant not merely as a cute and meaningful axiom, but rather as a centering of our discipline as human beings generally and as Jews specifically. As Rav Soleveichik points out in his teachings about Halachic man, it is the nature of our lives that we feel we are pulled in many different directions (precisely because this is the case!). Yet, we must live in the center of these pulls, being both part of the world in which we live and simultaneously using the frame of Halacha to keep us from being pulled to much to one side or the other. Balance through the maintaining of discipline is the goal here --- to live with others and resist their practices (as we learn in Chapters 17 and 18 of our double Parsha) and then maintain our own values and practices regardless of what others do, but simply because G-d says so!

Chapter 20 of Parshat Kedoshim ends our unit of text with punishments that are meted out for not observing the laws and restrictions set forth in this text (and others in the Torah as well). These are the consequential results of NOT maintaining our required level of Kedusha as spelled out in the text. Most of the focus of this text correlates most readily with the forbidden practices to be found in the following text of Parshat Emor. In these next chapters, we once again continue to read about the terrible consequences of prohibited practices that will take us further and further away from the level of Kedusha we were intended to achieve and maintain. How do we avoid such consequences? We do so by reminding ourselves constantly of the very structure upon which our existence is based, as described at this pivotal point in the text. It is the discipline of the law given by G-d to the B’nai Yisrael, the content of that disciplined existence, and the reasons for maintaining it that form the centerpiece of our Torah in this Parsha. Found within both the words of these chapters and the structure of their composition and location is a very serious and important message that we must all take to heart. As B’nai Yisrael, we have and continue to live in a world with many other peoples and influences. We will in fact be aware of their practices and lives. We are to continue living in this world while maintaining the level of Kedusha that we are told by G-d to achieve. The script we have to instruct us in these challenges is whole and comprehensive.

The challenge that remains: Do we always understand G-d’s intent and reasons in fostering a life for the Jewish nation that is at one and the same time intertwined with the lot of so many other peoples and simultaneously separate and distinct to itself?

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