Jewish Journal

The Holiness of Life

Parshat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb

April 18, 2002 | 8:00 pm

All of us have heard, or experienced a variation of the following story, told of a father and his daughter. She, a busy professional; he, a retired widower. In one of their virtually nonexistent exchanges, he asks: "With your booked schedule, will you be able to attend my funeral?" Her response: "Of course, how could you say such a thing?" His retort: "I need you in my life now, before I die."

This week, for an assortment of reasons, we couple two Torah portions, "Acharei Mot" and "Kedoshim," simply translated, "after death, holiness." The less than arbitrary juxtaposition of these two readings offers a powerful, inspirational insight. What does it mean, after death, holiness?

After having endured the death of a loved one, or a significant loss of some kind, most of us feel a strong yearning for what was. Typically, we ache for the things, or people, we no longer have in our lives, perhaps because we never fully appreciated what we had -- things like our health, our families and our friends. "After death, holiness," is a retrospective, a warning. It goads us into finding the holiness in the everyday, while we, and those we love, are still alive.

Significantly, the "Holiness Code," as scholars refer to it, appears in this week's Torah reading. (Leviticus 19 begins with the commandment, "You shall be holy.") One important aspect of holiness is discipline; training oneself to savor the here and now, realizing every moment can be imbued with a sense of the divine. That is the spiritual challenge all of us face. While it is vital to maintain cemeteries, and ensure the deceased are given proper burials, it is far more difficult, and infinitely more important, to honor life and make it holy.

As a nation, we Jews developed out of a civilization that glorified the dead. Ironically, ancient Egypt taught us a great deal about life. But like the title of this week's double Torah portion, it did so retrospectively, both through historical and theological disassociation. It taught us that any society that venerates death is unholy. We knew that then, and we are reminded of that now. The Jews of Israel, modern day "Israelites," if you will, are still battling a mindset that venerates the dead, a mindset that makes "holy" those who embrace death and murder, destruction and suicide. The pyramids -- archeological wonders of the world, used to entomb the dead -- have been rebuilt, only this time in the West Bank, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Through the incorporation of twisted logic, religious and political fanaticism, Palestinian terrorists have embraced a principle that cheapens all of God's creations, a principle that worships the dead, and after-world rewards. To such a mind, one becomes holy by willfully giving up one's life, and murdering scores of men, women and children in the process. All efforts to find holiness in the here and now are scorned. "After death, holiness," becomes nothing more than a pretext for martyrdom.

When all is said and done, peace will come to the Middle East as soon as Israel's neighbors experience their own "Exodus from Egypt," and conscientiously leave behind a worldview that glorifies death. Only when they can savior all human life as something supremely precious and sanctified will the suicide/murders cease; only then will peace and civility prevail. Is there holiness after death? Of course, but not until life, here and now, is seen as inherently holy -- both for oneself and for others.

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