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Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

May 5, 2023
15 Iyyar 5783
30th day of the Omer
Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Dear Friends,

What is holy? What does it mean to be holy? Is a better word sacred? The two words are used somewhat interchangeably in English. In Hebrew, we have the root קדש. It is a three-letter root that we find in the words of the two key prayers kaddish and kiddush. Each is about sanctification – either recognizing that which is holy or creating holiness.

In Hebrew School this week, we discussed what holiness means. There were no simple answers to be found, as each of us had our own definition. Reflecting on our discussion, perhaps the answer is personal. What matters is not what we understand as being sacred or holy, but that the category exists at all. On the wall of my office, I have a piece of art that says “Blessed are You who distinguishes between the holy and the every day.” 

The challenge for each of us is to recognize sacred/holy moments when they occur. So often our days rush by as we go from one thing to the next, not taking time to breathe, reflect, and express gratitude for that which we have. But that which is sacred or holy is so much more than a solitary private act, it is at its most powerful when it is communal.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor (“say”), Leviticus 21:1-24:23, has a great deal in it. One of the major strands of the Torah portion is putting forth the practices of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, along with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a declaration of sacred time closely aligned with an agricultural calendar. It is a reminder that for us, sacred time is more important that sacred space, as exemplified by the Mishkan, a portable Holy space. Sacred time can be both fixed and movable.

Along with these communal moments of time-bound observance, we are reminded with great clarity of our own responsibility in creating a world that has holiness within. The description of the holidays is interrupted by the following injunction to take care of the poor: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I Adonai, am your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

Maimonides’ commentary on this section has the capacity to resonate with us:

“When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a festival, he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not indulging in rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut …This rejoicing is a disgrace.”

As each of us grapples with our individual understanding of holiness, may we all join together in the understanding that simply engaging in ritual is not enough. The true meaning of holiness can be found when we go beyond ourselves and care for those around us.

A final note as I write this – there is strong need within me to acknowledge that all of you are part of a holy/sacred community in the way in which you care for one another and the way in which your efforts extend beyond comfortable and easy boundaries. May you all be blessed in your holy acts of chesed, of lovingkindness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, October 3 2023 18 Tishrei 5784