Acharei Mot Kedoshim

 Before anything I have written down, let me teach you a little Latin. When I was in the introduction to bible class at Brandeis with Professor Mark Brettler, he taught a very common structure in Torah and in Biblical literature, which is called the ‘inclusio structure.’ This is a fancy word for saying ‘envelope.’ The second part of Acharei-Mot Kedoshim, kedoshim is a classic example of this because it opens with the words “you shall be holy” and then closes with the words “you shall be holy,” ignoring the last verse which just doesn’t fit anywhere, so they stuck it there. But if we ignore the very last verse, it was a classic inclusio with the beginning and the end. 

So that’s what I’m thinking about today: what does it mean to be holy? We have lots and lots and lots of details, but the big picture is “you should be holy because, I, G-d, am holy.” And if we tried to make a bumper sticker of the Torah, this might be it. Sure, we’ve had different ideas over the years: be a decent person, remember the Golden Rule, everything is found within Torah, see the Divine in every human being, walk in the ways of Hashem, the world stands on three things (insert your three things here). We got lots of ideas of how to make a straightforward, simple branding experience and the world today loves branding. What does an organization do when they’re not quite sure? Oh we’ll just make a new brand. We’ll throw some money at it and then everyone’s gonna like us again. We love bumper stickers; they’re catchy, they’re short. Everyone’s looking for just the right phrase. “Just do it” – Nike’s made billions on that. And If you find just the right psychological tool to get in your head and convince people to buy, do, act according to whatever they’re selling. And in a world of constant advertising and messaging appears on your screens, and screens are everywhere these days, we can forget what really matters.

Here in our admittedly long Parsha, it lays out: be holy, follow G-d, G-d is holy so we should be holy. Seems straightforward but as I’m saying, it’s not. Through all of these myriad of details, G-d is instructing us on how to relate to ourselves and how to relate to others. The details are complicated and even sometimes contradictory. But they help us communicate with one another and articulate our views. At the same time this Parsha can cause us a little bit of agita and even anger. Its views on sexuality can appear regressive and like the rest of the Torah though, when we see things that frustrate us, we don’t just ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist, we ask more questions. 

There’s the whole section in the Gemara about another verse that drives us crazy, which is the stoning of the rebellious child. And they go back and forth and ultimately say it ain’t never happened, but then one Rabbi said “But I did, I saw it!” and they’re like “it ain’t never happened.” But it’s there to teach us how to argue with each other. We have to debate and argue and focus and imagine. And there’s a classic story that I’m going to read from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, who had me look at it in a bit of a different way. He actually wrote this little section for Yom Kippur in 1996, but it’s still good. 

   There was a guy who wanted to learn all of Torah. But he doesn’t want to learn it traditionally, he doesn’t want to sit, he doesn’t want to study, he wants Shamai to tell him all of Torah on one foot. And what does Shamai do? He does a little more than send him away, he smacks him on the side of the head and sends him away. He actually and according to the tradition picks up a builder’s rule, which is basically a 2x4, smacks him, and sends him on the way. Then he goes to Hillel, and says to Hillel “teach me the Torah.”What is hateful to you don’t do to your fellow, that’s the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, now go and learn.” We usually read this to say: oh what a mensch is Hillel, oh he’s so nice, he saw this person who was being kind of a jerk and welcomes him anyway and figures out a way to engage him.

Well, Rabbi Feinstein says after decades, Shamai was right. Not that you should spack someone on the side of the head with a 2x4, but there is wisdom. Because consider the request. The man comes and demands: give me your Torah, teach me all your wisdom, all your traditions, all you’ve learned from a lifetime of study, a lifetime of reflection, a lifetime of meditation, and observation, experience, and even suffering, and teach it to me now. Give it to me quickly and simply. Don’t bother me with details, don’t bother me with nuance, give me its essence. Make it easy and make it quick. And that’s just not what Torah is. Torah is not here on a silver platter, here’s exactly what you got to do. We’ve got generations of commentary, generations of arguments, generations of nuance. 

We love nuance in the Jewish tradition. It’s almost never black and white. It’s almost always in the middle. We’re living not just in the gray, because I think gray is less interesting. We’re living in the technicolor rainbow middle of all of these possibilities and having to figure out: how do we live between the black fire and the white fire and walk on the tightrope in between. So Rabbi Feinstein says that sometimes he thinks that Shamai actually gave him an answer with that smack. Because the student was expecting something simple: a proverb, a maxim, an allegory. He wants a soundbite, that 15 seconds, something that fits on a bumper sticker, some little bit of wisdom like Hillel gave him so he doesn’t understand that Shamai gave him the answer. “You want to know the Torah on one foot,” Rabbi Feinstein says, “you want the whole Torah? The Torah is wake up! That’s it. Wake up to what’s inside of you. Wake up to the world you live in. Wake up to the possibilities. Wake up to the miracles. Wake up!” But that guy didn’t get it because he wanted something simpler. He wouldn’t take the next step to understand the truth.

Wisdom isn’t a technique, it’s a way of being. It’s the character of the human soul. Now whether we’re talking about faith, politics, nationalism, celebrating Israel’s 75th, or almost anything else, people are always looking for the five fast facts, the clear narrative: here’s how it goes. That answer is almost universally wrong. The only 100% true historical statement is that any nation the British colonized, they screwed up. You can look at India, you can look right here, you can look in the Middle East and everything can be blamed on the British (or not, but that’s a conversation for another time.) But you see, what did I try to do? I tried to make a simple global answer, it doesn’t really work because the truth is found in the details and the contradictions. It’s in the struggle, in the balance. This is the greatest strength and weakness of the Conservative (Jewish) movement, of any centrist movement: the world is complex. It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. We can’t all agree on one little word because we have to understand (maybe the bumper sticker is nuanced, I’m not sure how well that would work.) 

Life is complicated. Full stop. No podcast, no book, no document, no beautiful painting is going to solve all of your problems. Torah acknowledges the complexity. The talmud acknowledges the complexity. Rabbinic literature acknowledges the complexity. It includes the “wrong answers” as well as the “right ones.”( In mishna Eduyot, there is a questions that says “why does the mishna preserve the opinion of an individual against that of the majority seeing that the adopted ruling is in accordance with the majority?” And the answer is: so that if a court favored the view of the individual and may rely upon him for a court must not annul the view of another court, unless it excels it in wisdom and number.” And then Maimonides a thousand years later says in his introduction to the commentary of the mishna, he says on this text the reason it was necessary to record both the position of the minority and the majority, because it is possible that the halacha should be in a accord with the minority view, unless it comes to teach us that if the logic of the minority view is correct and clear, one listens to it, even though the majority take issue. 

Sometimes the wrong answer 2000 years ago is the right answer now. And sometimes the right answer a thousand years ago is the wrong answer now. Our tradition preserves multiple narratives, multiple threads, multiple possibilities, because it is a living breathing tradition. It is not something that we put on a shelf and put glass cover over it and say “oh that’s our beautiful tradition we’re going to leave it there.” It’s our tradition that has be taken out, rip that cover off, put that table cloth on your table, let it get a little bit stained, enjoy having generations talking with one another every single day. To be a Jew is a challenge to the world. Why do you think everybody gets irritated at us and to ourselves? Whether we call ourselves yehudim or Jews from the tribe of Judah, as a nation we are Am Israel, we are the people of Israel. The classic explanation of what is in that name is: G-d wrestler, or wrestler of G-d. While Israel might have literally wrestled with G-d, we are to wrestle with G-d figuratively. We are not to expect the easy answer; and in a world of instant communication and, “hey Siri what’s this” we are supposed to put in a little sit splice, we got to sit there and argue and think about it.

According to the school of Rabbi Ishmael, the verse says is not my word like fire, that’s a quote from Jeremiah, it finishes and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces just as this hammer breaks a stone into several fragments so too one verse is stated by G-d and from it can come several explanations. Rabbi David Polsky, a modern Rabbi in referencing that says the school of Rabbi Ishmael compares each verse of the Torah to a rock. And just as rock can be broken into many fragments and in Sanhedrin they argue about it) is it breaking a rock into many parts or is it sparks coming off the rock when you smack it with the hammer. Either way, we are always able to read every single verse of Torah in different ways and that is specifically about Torah. Because Torah is divine but the truth is so much of this world can be understood when we recognize the multiple perspectives and the multiple possibilities.( 

To me, so many of the challenges of this particular moment is to say “I’m right, you’re wrong, there’s no way you’re right. You’re evil for disagreeing with me.” How do we go back to a holy argument where we argue the details to figure out? How do we create new sparks? How to create new possibilities to, as in Hamilton, in the room where it happens, they walked in with nothing on the table, completely at odds, and then you walk out with a solution that no one had previously thought of. How do you find the new idea that could be the compromise, the possibility where everybody says, “okay let’s find a new path.” That requires everybody willing open to the possibility that there might be a solution where everyone gets something and everyone doesn’t get everything.

But our Torah is saying over and over and over, there’s not one right way. There’s multiple possibilities. Now there’s a challenge with that. The nuance if everybody is doing exactly what they think is right in the eyes of G-d, in the eyes of themselves, then there’s no community. So you have to have some kind of boundaries on there to keep people together. Nuance is holy. So maybe with our inclusio, with our opening of “I am going to be holy because G-d is holy.” In closing, you are a holy nation because G-d is holy. We can look at all those details, we can fight about what they mean, and we can choose to live a life together, in community.

Sermon begins at 2:03:50