Acharei Mot-Kedoshim- 5783 – How Do We Fulfill the Mitzvah to be A Holy People?

By: Fred Nathan

Shabbat Shalom and thank you for letting me celebrate my second bar mitzvah here at the Kehillah. This Shabbat morning offers me the opportunity for a do over.

What do I mean by this?

Well long story short;  I  go back to my days in graduate school. I lived at home and commuted between home and school via the NYC subway system. It appears that a young Catholic priest was also commuting the same route and after a few weeks of seeing each other we ended up seated together and I noticed he was carrying a book – a Jewish History book, which was an opening to an ongoing conversation. He was a brother, a monk, of an order of teaching monks and was particularly interested in Biblical history and the history of the People of the book- of us, the Jews.

A few weeks later he asked if I would like to visit his monastery and meet with his Abbot and some fellow brothers to answer some questions about modern day Jewish observance.

We met and it was a very pleasant experience although I remember very little of what we discussed except for one particular comment by the Abbot.

He offered that he wished that the Catholic Church would come up with a ritual similar to our bar mitzvah. He thought it was brilliant that just as a young Jewish boy was going through puberty and adolescence, with its confusion, self-doubt, issues of self-identity, that their families devoted months where he was the center of their attention. They helped him prepare for a coming-of-age ceremony where he would be the focal point, and this would be followed by a celebration where he would be the star.

I probably nodded in agreement but knew that that wasn’t my bar mitzvah experience.

My experience was anything but confidence building. You see, some time after I turned 12, I was told that my bar mitzvah parasha was actually a double one: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. As a boy raised in an Orthodox home, and as a student in an Orthodox day school, I was expected to chant both parshiot in their entirety as well as the haftarah and to deliver a dvar torah on my Bar Mitzvah.

The idea of performing in front of a congregation was frightening; delivering a dvar torah filled me with terror.

I was introduced to my tutor, Mr. Brichansky, may he rest in peace, a small, patient—very patient—man, who had no idea of the challenge I presented.

I was tone deaf! Still am, as those of you who sit next to me in shul will testify. Reading the Hebrew wasn’t the problem. Learning the trope was. Mr. Brichansky would chant a trop and I would repeat. There were on some occasions, very few actually, where my version of what he chanted was in some way or form similar to his.

The year of preparation was torture, consisting of hours of study, sleepless nights, night sweats, and nightmares. I did get through my Bar Mitzvah somehow, but the congratulations were muted if offered at all. And to top it all, Mr. Feldman, a neighbor, dropped my Bar Mitzvah cake, completely obliterating my name, which had been emblazoned in royal blue icing.

But now it is time for me to deliver a dvar torah.  And I have absolutely no recollection of the one I delivered at my Bar Mitzvah.

I do recall, vaguely, reviewing possible topics but can’t recall which of the many presented in these two parshiot, I chose. So, let’s review the choices together and see if we can find one to discuss which would have been appropriate for the 13-year-old I was then as well as for the 83-year-old I am now

Parshat Acharei Mot begins with the words “After the death of Aaron’s two son’s for getting too close to G-d.” I think G-d overreacted! No. Not d’var material.

What’s next? Oh. The tenth day of Tishrei—we call it Yom Kippur today—and the concept of the scapegoat. A goat is chosen by lottery and the High Priest transfers all of Israel’s sins to this innocent creature and sends him off to die in the wilderness to expiate their sins. Really. Then this concept is repeated regarding individuals expiating their sins with sin offerings. So, you steal or cheat in business, lie under oath, mistreat a slave or servant and then you sacrifice an innocent calf, or goat, or any sweet innocent animal, who could never lie or cheat in business, as an expiation for your wrongs. Skip that one.

O.K. Now it’s time for the sprinkling of the blood throughout the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies. How this ceremony using a dead animal’s blood could sanctify anything made no sense to me. Although it is a basic concept in Christianity, it’s not a topic for a d’var.

Well, the next topic worth skipping regards incest. Right—a topic perfect for a 13-year-old’s Bar Mitzvah speech. Don’t have sex with your father’s wife—oh that’s my mother—and it’s also a no-no for my aunts. Really? Have you ever seen my aunts? Similarly, sisters are off limits, but not to worry as I have no sisters. But I do have brothers and we did sleep together every night; the three of us in two beds pushed together. Room was tight for the 10 of us in a three-bedroom apartment. And the final topic of this parasha: homosexuality. I knew it was considered wrong but at that time had no idea what or why. So, desperate for a d’var torah topic I moved on to this week’s second parasha, Kedoshim.

The Lord spoke to Moses. Speak to Bnai Yisrael and tell them: you shall be holy.

I had no idea how one becomes holy. The Torah is holy, Jerusalem is holy, God is holy, and Moses was holy. I know this because I heard my family say Holy Moses many times.

But despite not knowing how to fulfill the mitzvah of being holy, this parasha had a lot I could relate to. Thank God.

For example: revere your parents. I was blessed with good parents—no problem.

Don’t worship idols! Not to worry.

Leave the corners of your field for the poor to harvest. I had no fields but what a neat concept.

Don’t steal – duh! Don’t deal falsely with one another, don’t swear falsely, don’t cheat, don’t rob. And here’s one that was really advanced for its time: don’t withhold the wages of a day laborer to the next day.

It keeps getting better. Don’t insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. This was three thousand years before the A.D.A.—the American Disability Act.

Don’t let your judgment be influenced by a person’s wealth.

As for the stranger living among you, you shall love him as yourself. Well, that’s one that we need to work on.

And then the one sentence that summed it all up.

V’ahavta l’re’acha kamochaואהבת לרעך כמוך

Love your fellow as yourself.

There is more—about ecology and—oh, the list goes on, but I’ll leave some things for you to discover on your own.

There is, however, one verse and commandment that actually means so much more for me today than it did in 1953: You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.

I assume that I spoke about one or some of these mitzvot, but I did not have an answer to my question about how one becomes holy.

That is, not until I was a bit older. The Torah actually gives the answer immediately following G-d’s commandment to be a holy people. Observing all the mitzvot that follow makes us holy. We become holy when we observe the mitzvot found in this parasha.

This parasha also answers my question about what is wonderful about Judaism.

Three thousand years and still relevant! Wow!!!

Shabbat Shalom!

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