Weekly Torah Portion: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20) 5776/2016 Holy Cheerios

What thought comes to mind when you think of holiness? For most, it conjures up people living a life of seclusion and abstinence where one is in a state of serenity and is free to ponder life’s conundrums. The Jewish view of holiness is incompatible with this notion. This week’s Torah portion begins with the words “be holy,” and there’s a difference of opinion between two of Judaism’s most classic commentators on what exactly those words mean. Rashi says it refers to illicit sexual relations whereas Ramban (Spain, 1194 – 1270) questioned this interpretation because, he challenged, if it is something forbidden, why would someone be called holy for observing it? For example, is a man called holy because he doesn’t sleep with a married woman? Therefore, Ramban gave a different explanation; “be holy” refers to permissible activities. It suggests that a person should withdraw from even permissible things if s/he does them in a repulsive way. He explains that without self-limitation a person has the ability to be a hoggish glutton with the permission of the Torah. A person can partake glatt kosher food but eat it like an animal, stuffing large portions in his mouth, slobbering over his drink and other coarse behavior. Although this person didn’t eat any ham or bacon, his behavior is not in accord with being holy. The Jew is enjoined not only to keep the Mitzvos of the Torah, s/he is also required to be holy; that concerns behavior and living within the spirit of the Torah.
No matter which approach to holiness one takes, the common denominator is that self-restraint is an asset. How does one learn how to exercise the self-restraint muscle? I.e. how can I learn and develop the ability to say ‘no’ to things detrimental to my marriage, health or reaching my potential in life? Some think that the best way is to live in solitude and abstinence but the first few words of this week’s Torah portion point us in a different direction. It is crucial to note that before the mandate “be holy,” the following words precede it.
(G-d says to Moses) “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them.”
The operative word in the above verse is “all.” Normally, G-d tells Moses to speak to the children of Israel, why is “all” added here; what does it teach us? Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) infers that this addition wasn’t just a historical detail in that this section of the Torah was taught to ALL of the Jews, it was necessary because it instructed them how it was to be fulfilled. One might think that the ideal way to achieve sanctity or holiness is isolation; this section was distinctively delivered when all of the Jewish people were present-men, the women, and children. If you want to be holy-if you want to have a significant relationship with G-d-the way to do it is to get married, have children, be involved with your community and live with the day to day challenges of one with a robust appetite for things that stimulate nerve endings and make us feel good. Don’t be celibate and live a life of deprivation; involve yourself in every pleasure this world has to offer but make sure you have the ability to restrain yourself-to exercise your “say no” muscle-for things not conducive to your physical, emotional, and spiritual identity, even though they might make you feel good for the moment. Being a recluse is not part of the Jewish experience.
The following story illustrates this point. It happened to Sara Yocheved Rigler, a woman living in Israel who began her Jewish journey after spending years in an Ashram. (the full article is called Buddhism, Judaism, and The Great Cheerio Fiasco.)
“For 17 years, I meditated, usually three times a day. My goal was to attain a state of elevated consciousness which the Hindus call samadhi — the experience of the total oneness underlying the apparent multiplicity of this world…Once, during my 11th year of living at the ashram, a Hindu-style spiritual retreat, I actually experienced that transcendental state. Conducting the community’s group meditation in the shrine room, I felt my consciousness rise out of my body. I left the world of time and space behind, and entered into a state of Total Oneness. I was not aware that over an hour passed in that state, or that the other members of the community had tip-toed out of the shrine room to begin their morning duties. When I finally, with great difficulty, managed to “come down” and open my eyes, it took me another fifteen minutes just to reorient my mind to this world of form and motion.
The ritual worship over, I left the shrine, took off my chuddar (prayer shawl), and was engaged in folding it, when Sister Baroda approached me. I was the schedule maker, and she asked if she could switch her cooking day with someone else in the community. Up to that point, I felt like I had been descending to earth gradually, as with a wind-filled parachute, but suddenly, Sister Baroda poked a gaping hole in my parachute. I landed with a thud, and yelled at her for disturbing my rapture. Then I angrily stalked off to my room to escape the garrulous group of ashram members chatting frivolously over breakfast.”
[Fast forward over twenty years]. “For the last six months, I have been working on overcoming anger, which the Talmud equates to the sin of idol worship, because anger is the result of idolizing one’s own will. During the 15 years I lived in an ashram, the 16 years I practiced vegetarianism and yoga, the 17 years I engaged in meditation, I never succeeded in controlling my volatile temper.
Young children provide an ideal environment to work on overcoming anger. They are irrational, contrary, famous for interrupting the sleep cycle, demanding, and do not clean up after themselves. They also make messes, usually right after the floor has been washed, and when their mother is at the lowest point of her bio-rhythm energy cycle. I thank God every day for my beloved children. But I also yell at them — too much.
Last Tuesday morning, my husband, a musical arranger, had an important recording session…I offered to prepare carrot sticks and hummus to send for his lunch. He gratefully accepted, but, knowing my habitual tardiness, warned that he had to leave promptly at 8:30. “No problem,” I assured him. In any case, my six-year-old son had to be out the door by 8:20 to get to school on time. Ten minutes was exactly enough time to prepare the carrot sticks and package some humus in a smaller container. I was on top of it.
At 8:19, my son knocked over a box of Cheerios standing on the edge of the kitchen table. My jaw dropped in horror as hundreds of crunchy O’s landed all over the kitchen floor. My mental computer screen flashed a dozen red X’s screaming ILLEGAL OPERATION. The mess. The waste. The money (the Cheerios were imported from America). The time. My self-portrait as the ideal wife.
I couldn’t get to the refrigerator to take out the carrots without pulverizing the blanket of Cheerios. If I took the time to clean it up now, I’d be late with my husband’s lunch. My first instinct was to yell at my son, and demand that he clean it up, even if it made him late for school. My second instinct was to lash out at my husband for his damned punctuality that put me under such pressure.
I didn’t yell. I didn’t get angry. In a calm tone, I sent my son off to school. Then I gingerly treaded over the Cheerios to the broom closet, got out the broom, pushed the mess over to one side, retrieved the carrots from the fridge, peeled and cut them as fast as I could, took the whole container of hummus (it wouldn’t be too much, I told myself), put everything in a plastic bag, and, with a beatific smile, handed my waiting husband his lunch at 8:33.
I felt a wave of ecstasy sweep over me. I had done it! For this time at least, I had overcome my anger. It was a bigger accomplishment than samadhi.”
This story is illustrative because we see a woman who found more spirituality in her daily encounters and her ability to flex the “no muscle” than she did from a life of isolation. Passover-the festival that represents freedom-just ended. How about this for an undertaking, let’s use our freedom to enjoy the pleasures of this world and at the same time to be holy. Whether it’s food, sex, alcohol, anger, dishonestly or any other of the myriad of challenges we encounter when dealing with society and learning to exercise our “no muscle” so that we-no matter who we are-can be holy Jews.
Good Shabbos