Rabbi O’s Weekly: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20) Lessons from Lieutenant Dan

If you had to pick a topic that most people never talk about for much of their lives, what would it be? I would vote “G-d.” People have serious discussions about sports, music, theater, hobbies, child rearing and a host of other discussions. They ask each other’s opinions about quarterbacks, quartets, and how to handle a quarrel with an adolescent but never G-d is almost-if ever-mentioned. When was the last time He was mentioned at a dinner party or discussion group? When was the last time two friends, who talk about everything and are constantly solving the world’s problems, asked each other what they thought about G-d? Some people are willing to read about the history of religion and its effect on civilization but having a frank discussion about G-d is not common. Does He exist? If so, is there any ramification for me or the world? If not, is all morality relative? Can I demand someone else to be good or moral or is that just something I believe in? An onlooker has no right to make a judgement of a person, whatever (s)he answers, but each person must live with his or her answer. Some people deceive themselves into believing that they have thought it through, but how much have they really read, listened to, and had an honest and thorough dialogue. This issue is one of the most crucial existential issues of life because your answer will affect how you deal with life’s vicissitudes. Do you get angry or depressed when things don’t work out the way you planned? If you don’t have the job, relationship, or health you thought you deserved at this point in life, do you feel like a victim? We all believe in something, for some it’s that their educational credentials will get them a job, but it doesn’t always work according to the playbook. For others it’s the corporation they have given so many loyal years to, but that doesn’t always work either; some people believe that they can achieve anything they want but also doesn’t go according to (their) plan. Things happen in life beyond our control and one can either embrace the idea that it came from a Higher Power, i.e. what Jews call G-d, or one can curse his or her destiny like Lieutenant Dan in Forest Gump; who screamed at Forest, “I was supposed to die in the field, with honor. That was my destiny and you cheated me out of it!” The G-d question is almost never asked because it makes people uncomfortable but many of them don’t realize the consequences of avoiding an adult conversation on this topic.
Two Torah portions are read this week, the second of which opens with an appeal to be holy. Someone who does not believe in G-d can be moral, good, and charitable, but can that person be holy? That term, according to the dictionary, refers to one who is “dedicated or consecrated to God.” But can one become holy? G-d is holy ; when we remove the Torah scroll from the Ark, we sing a melody to the words, “HaShem, our G-d, is holy.” How can the first verse of the Parsha insist that we be holy; isn’t that reserved for  G-d?
If we have been commanded to be holy, it must be that we have the potential to do so. Throughout life, all of us have had to deal with resentment, fear, self-pity, and other character defects that affect our life choices; we live with the consequences of those choices. People live with remorse from the fear they had that was the reason they didn’t try out for the school play, enter a meaningful relationship, or perhaps break up a relationship that showed no future. Those thoughts lead one to feel like a failure because (s)he didn’t reach the potential (s)he knew (s)he could.
Speak to the entire congregation of the Jewish people, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your G-d, am holy. (19:2)
By commanding us to be holy, G-d sends the message that we have the ability to do it. It’s the ultimate compliment because He is telling us that just as He is holy, so too should we be holy. It’s the ultimate compliment because, in a certain way, the Almighty says, you can be like Me. That means every person can be holy; like G-d. We tell ourselves, I am only human. I have made so many mistakes and continue to do so; how can I amount to anything? This thinking is a mistake and is the counsel of the yetzer hara, the internal voice that attempts to keep us from achieving our potential. The message from the above verse is that even though you are just a human with all the accompanying frailties, and I am G-d, you still have the chance to be holy. To dedicate yourself to something other than yourself and live for something far greater.
Imagine if a person went to the LeBron James basketball camp and was told by LeBron himself that he could be like him. He (Lebron) knows you, has seen you play and has seen you fail and give up, but he assures you that you can be like him-and he means it. Would an aspiring basketball player, no matter how many mistakes he had made, give up if one of the greatest basketball players of all time believed in him?
No matter who you are or where in life you find yourself, G-d Himself is giving the message that He believes in you. One of the things King David thanked G-d for was that He always stayed with him. The stone that the builders rejected became a cornerstone. (Psalms 118:22). We might stop believing in ourselves but G-d never does.
Instead of getting nervous when hearing about becoming holy, we should be encouraged by the knowledge that we are not limited by our past or even the mistakes we are presently making. We have a future, if we believe in it. Lieutenant Dan ultimately found peace when he stopped cursing what he thought was his destiny. We too can find peace when we are willing to accept the idea of a loving G-d who has many expectations from us and by having them, He demonstrates that He believes in us. Could there be any words of encouragement greater than that?
Good Shabbos