Posted by: Subway Conductor | April 23, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

What does it mean to be a religious Jew? I believe that we can get an answer from this week’s parsha.

This week we have a double portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. We are going to discuss the second of these portions that are often combined together.

The name of the Torah portion Kedoshim means “holy” and this section of the Torah is sometimes called the holiness code. It begins with the words, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them.” It is significant that this portion is addressed to the “whole Israelite community.” We are, after all, in the middle of the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus, as the name implies, speaks primarily to the rituals of the Temple which were carried out by the Levites and the Priests. The Torah now focuses on the entirety of the people. Therefore, we can assume that what is contained in this portion is important for every Jew. The beginning verses continue, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” Holy is one of these terms that we frequently use in discussions about religion. But, what does it mean? It is hard to put your finger on an exact meaning. Since the Torah commences with the command “be holy,” perhaps, if we look at the continuation of the portion, we might discover what it means to be holy. The Torah does not proceed to list a set of cardinal beliefs which we must accept as doctrine. It does proceed with a long list of mitzvot – commandments – that we must observe. This portion is filled with commandments enunciated in rapid fire succession. And they cover a wide range of topics. We find the commandments to: (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) revere your mother and father, observe the Sabbath, not turn to idols, not practice sorcery, not to lie, steal, bear a grudge, or take revenge. There are commandments to leave the corners of the field for the poor, love your neighbor as yourself, and to have honest weights and measures in business. The commandments that forbid shatnez, cursing the deaf, and placing a stumbling block before the blind. And there is a lengthy section forbidding various sexual relations. As we read through this long list of do’s and don’ts, we realize that all of life is covered by the commandments of the Torah.

Before proceeding with the main commentary, I want to highlight a couple of specific commandments. This week’s portion says, “You shall revere your mother and your father and keep my sabbaths.” (Lev. 19:3) Of course, in the decalogue, these are two separate commandments. Why are they joined together here? The rabbis explained that, although we should revere our parents, if they were to tell us not to observe the Sabbath, it is incumbent upon us to disregard them in this case. We were commanded by G-d to observe the Sabbath and our parents cannot overturn G-d’s command. As for placing “a stumbling block before the blind,” the Talmud interprets this to mean that we must not take advantage of another’s weakness. Hence, knowingly giving bad advice to someone who is ignorant is forbidden.  This could include financial dealings or it might mean telling someone who is lacking Jewish knowledge that something is permitted which we know to be forbidden.

           The long list of commandments makes us aware that the Torah sees all of life as its domain. What does it mean to be a religious Jew? In answer to this question, many would respond; it means keeping kosher, or keeping Shabbat, or davening every day. This is true, but it also involves having honest weights and measure in business, leaving the corners of the field for the poor, and not placing a stumbling block before the blind.

           Judaism is a way of life. Now, sometimes when I have heard people make this statement, “Judaism is a way of life,” I have been struck that they are really watering-down Judaism. They intend this nebulous phrase to imply that Judaism does not make specific demands on us, but, it simply is “a way of life.”   When I say that Judaism is “a way of life” I mean that Judaism should have an impact on all aspects of our life. The mitzvot of the Torah address everything we do, from what we eat, to how we conduct our business, to our family relations, and how we deal with our neighbors. One might say that the Torah is a guide for how a Jew is to live.

           What does it mean to be a religious Jew? It means to follow the guide, to live in accordance with the mitzvot of the Torah. It is not limited to what we do in the synagogue, but it shapes how we live our lives. 

Good Shabbos!!


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