Parshat Achrei-Mot/Kedoshim: On Being Holy

This week’s double parsha, Achrei-Mot Kedoshim, marks a significant turning point in sefer Vayikra and is a springboard for thinking about hierarchies and accessibility of holiness.

The parsha opens with a description of the order of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Temple – the holiest person, on the holiest day, in the holiest place. After more discussion of sacrifices, Vayikra 18 shifts to discussing mitzvot beyond the mikdash, including prohibited sexual relationships and other mitzvot, many of which relate to social relationships and responsibility. One verse in the middle of this list stands out: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, (kedoshim ti-hiyu) be holy…” For the commentaries, the placement and wording of this verse signaled its overarching value and meaning for each and every person.

After many chapters which were Temple-focused, the Torah emphasizes that not only priests have access to holiness. The midrash Sifra teaches that “be holy” was one of the sections read out to the whole community during hakhel, when all of Israel gathered to hear and learn Torah, emphasizing the potential for all to infuse their lives with kedusha. 

A similar dichotomy is found in Talmud Brachot regarding the source for the earliest time to say Shema at night. The mishna teaches: “From the time a kohen can eat terumah,” likening the saying of Shema to the holiness of the kohanim in the mikdash. Yet, the Talmud suggests other sources, including “the time a poor person comes home to eat their pita and salt.” Learning halakha from the daily routine of a poor person suggests that holiness can be accessed by all. The Talmud reinforces this when it states that the (timing of the) kohen and poor person are of “one measure.” 

“Be holy,” encourages us to aspire to emulate the holiest people and also challenges us to discover kedusha in unexpected places and people. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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