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Acharei-Kedoshim: Impossible Love and Holiness

Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G‑d warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” Only one person, the kohen gadol (“high priest”), may, but once a year, on Yom Kippur, enter the innermost chamber in the Sanctuary to offer the sacred ketoret to G‑d.

Another feature of the Day of Atonement service is the casting of lots over two goats, to determine which should be offered to G‑d and which should be dispatched to carry off the sins of Israel to the wilderness.

The Parshah of Acharei also warns against bringing korbanot (animal or meal offerings) anywhere but in the Holy Temple, forbids the consumption of blood, and details the laws prohibiting incest and other deviant sexual relations.

The Parshah of Kedoshim begins with the statement: “You shall be holy, for I, the L‑rd your G‑d, am holy.” This is followed by dozens of mitzvot (divine commandments) through which the Jew sanctifies him- or herself and relates to the holiness of G‑d.

These include: the prohibition against idolatry, the mitzvah of charity, the principle of equality before the law, Shabbat, sexual morality, honesty in business, honor and awe of one’s parents, and the sacredness of life.

Also in Kedoshim is the dictum which the great sage Rabbi Akiva called a cardinal principle of Torah, and of which Hillel said, “This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary”—“Love your fellow as yourself.”

Parshah in a Nutshell
Commentary on AchareiKedoshim
Leviticus 16:1–20:27

Okay, here’s the problem: I’m supposed to love my fellow man. Which means that I should accept my fellow human beings as they are. (That’s what love means, right?) But can I—indeed, should I—accept my fellow human beings as they are?

Should I accept a malnourished child as she is? Should I accept a drug-addicted teenager, a suicidal spouse or a bigoted friend as he is? If a person I love suffers from a lack of something—whether that something is food, money, knowledge, health, moral integrity or peace of mind—and whether that person wants to be helped or not, should I not do everything in my power to fill that lack?

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Love Yourself”
Commentary on AchareiKedoshim
Leviticus 16:1–20:27

Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:10 (JPS Tanakh)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m beating a dead horse as far as this “love” stuff in the Bible is concerned. I’ve been writing about love, or our woeful lack of it, all this week now and I can’t even stop long enough to write a commentary on this week’s Torah Portion. And yet the Bible speaks to both the Jews and the Christians (and everyone else) about the need; the absolute requirement for love.

It also speaks about the absolute need for holiness and perfection, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Christians should be very familiar with the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. –Matthew 22:39 (ESV)

That’s the second of the two greatest commandments issued by the Master and as I’m sure you can tell, this week’s Torah Portion was Christ’s “source material.”

But what does it mean to love someone else as you love yourself? Rabbi Tauber’s commentary is very eye opening.

Love is an oxymoron. To truly love someone, I have to do two contradictory things: I have to respect him, and I have to care for him. If I do not accept him as he is, that means that I do not respect him. It means that I don’t really love him—I love only what I wish to make of him. But to love someone also means that I care for him and desire the best for him. And since very, very few people are the best that they can be, caring for someone means not accepting him as he is, but believing in his potential to be better, and doing everything I can to reveal that potential.

I can respect someone. I can care for someone. I can accept a person as she is. I can not accept a person as he is. But I can’t do both at the same time. Love sounds great in principle. In practice, it’s impossible.

But I love myself. I’m not unaware of my deficiencies; indeed, in a certain sense, I am more aware of them than anyone else. I want to improve myself, but I don’t think less of myself because I haven’t yet done so. I respect myself and I care for myself; I accept myself as I am, while incessantly striving to make myself better than I am. I love myself—truly, fully, in every sense of the word.

Two and OneOften, husbands complain that their wives are always trying to change them, and usually in ways the husband doesn’t want to change. Here we see a little bit about why wives are motivated in this direction. If a wife loves her husband “as herself,” then she sees the faults in him and wants to help him be a better person. But what about the part of love that requires respecting the other? Is it respectful to try and change a person when they don’t want to be changed? Is it possible for a wife to love her husband enough to help him realize his greater potential and still respect him for who he is today?

If a person were trying to kill himself and you could stop him, would you stop him or respect his wish to die?

That’s a tough one, since some people feel that they should, under certain circumstances, respect another individual’s “right to die.” But what about an alcoholic drinking herself to death? What about a drug addict shooting chemicals into her arm while ignoring her baby crying in his crib? If you love someone and they are on a path toward self-destruction in any way, shape or form, could you stand idly by and allow it to happen? Won’t that self-destruction hurt or even destroy others around the person you love? Is allowing a person to “crash and burn” loving and respectful?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that one, but I do think that’s why both the Torah of Moses and the commandment of Christ specifically teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love isn’t easy.

But how does holiness figure into all of this?

Indeed, a Jew’s sanctity can be so lofty that it bears some comparison with G-d’s, as the verse states: “You shall… be holy, for I… am holy.”

But how is it possible for corporeal man to reach such heights? The verse addresses itself to this question when it states “for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy.” Since G-d is holy, each and every Jew can and must be holy as well, for all Jews “are truly part of G-d above.”

The measure of sanctity which each and every Jew is capable of achieving may best be appreciated when one realizes that the sanctity we are told to aspire to in Kedoshim follows that previously achieved in Acharei. In that portion, the passing of Nadav and Avihu is described as the result of their souls’ extreme longing for G-d. So great was their love that their bodies could no longer contain their souls, which literally expired.

The portion of Kedoshim informs every Jew that he is capable of even greater heights. For the pursuit of holiness is never-ending, one level always following another, the reason being that holiness emanates from G-d, who is truly infinite — “for I am holy.”

-from the Chassidic Dimension
“Holy and Holier”

Now recall the first of the two greatest commandments given by Jesus as quoted from the Torah:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” –Matthew 22:37-38 (ESV)

Marry all of that to what the Torah says about being holy and what the Master said about being perfect.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:48 (ESV)

The idea mixed in all of that is we can somehow be holy and perfect as God is, or at least shoot for that as a life-long goal; a series of levels that we’re continually climbing toward. But if that also has to do with how we love, then we are being commanded to continually love just like God loves.

How does God love? Unconditionally?

I’m tempted to say He loves us as He loves Himself, but trying to understand how God conceptualizes His own Being is beyond my limited human ability to imagine. But I do know that He loves us enough to have our welfare and what’s best for us at heart.

OK, I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, “Good grief! How can you say that!” If God really loved us and had our best interests at heart, how come children are beaten, women are raped, people are maimed and killed in wars, car accidents, and plane crashes, and how come so many people suffer lingering and horrible deaths from cancer and other miserable diseases?

I don’t know.

I only know that, even in the midst of hideous, nightmarish suffering such as was found in the camps of Dachau, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, God was there. He’s there when your doctor diagnoses you with cancer. He’s there when you have been assaulted by thugs and left for dead. He’s there when your spouse tells you he want a divorce. He’s there when you feel you haven’t the strength to go on and suicide seems the only way out.

He’s there when someone else needs His love and you are the only conduit available to provide that love. That’s the connection between love, holiness, and perfection. God’s love isn’t just some supernatural event or experience. If you are a Jew or a Christian and someone around you is suffering, you are God’s opportunity to love that person. When you are suffering, God has made it possible for someone near you to love you and comfort you in a way that is only possible for God.

Loving someone enough to perceive their faults and loving them enough to respect their wishes seems like trying to travel both east and west at the same time. It’s impossible. But that’s what God asks of us: the impossible. It’s impossible for us to be perfect like God is perfect. It’s impossible for us to be holy like God is holy. It’s impossible for us to love people like God loves people; to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves.

And yet, that’s what God requires of you and me with each waking moment of each passing day of our lives.

To love someone just as they are and still want to help them be the best they can be is to be holy and perfect. Love, holiness, and perfection are not destinations, they’re part of the journey we travel as we walk with God. When Jesus said to the righteous, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,’ as found in Matthew 25:40, he was talking about this kind of love.

When we feed a hungry person, visit someone in the hospital, or comfort a recent widow in her grief, we aren’t just giving them our love, we are giving them God’s love. It’s what makes it possible for us to be perfect and holy. It’s what makes it possible for a weak and frail human being mired in the abyss of despair to experience God’s infinite love and strength on earth. It’s what makes it possible for us to do the impossible; to rise above the pain and suffering of life and to experience the glorious, majestic holiness of God.

Be holy. Be perfect. Give love.

Good Shabbos.