This was adapted from a sermon delivered for Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, May 2, 2020, at Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, NC.
This week we first read Acharei Mot and then we read Kedoshim. These translate to “After death,” and “Holiness,” respectively, and come from the middle of the Book of Leviticus. I am completely struck and in awe when I read that “Holiness” comes “After Death”.
Acharei Mot talks again about the death of two of Aaron’s sons. Only after going through a lengthy and seemingly rigid ritual practice will Aaron be admitted entry into the innermost sanctuary of the Tabernacle. Even then, he will be allowed in only on Yom Kippur. On that day, he will perform the rites and rituals for his family and for the Israelite community as a whole. Sacrifices abound, and a goat will be ushered into the wilderness carrying all the transgressions of the people. Only after the experiencing the death of two children is Aaron given this weighty responsibility, as though he had to be personally transformed before he was able to care for the community as a whole.
This is where I see this parasha relating to the present day. A few people in our congregation have been impacted by death of loved ones due to COVID-19. All of us have been altered in some way during this pandemic, in which we try to prevent death of not only self or family members but also people whom we have never met. In the face of this deadly pandemic, we are offered a glimpse of what it means to carry the weight of caring for the larger community.
And that leads directly into the adjoining parasha—Kedoshim, holiness. These chapters and verses detail how we are not to act, that we are not meant to be like the Egyptians. We are not meant to be like the peoples we meet in our wandering, given that these groups are portrayed as slave masters or murderers at worst, and self-centered at best. When creating a society for the Israelites, we are learning what we don’t want to be from others. I could add that we are learning what we don’t want to be by learning from our own societal deficiencies. But we have the ability to learn and grow. As we read from Leviticus 19:2, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” Then we get instruction on what we are to do.
We shall leave the corners of our fields for the poor and the stranger. We must pay a person on the day they do the work. We shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. We must judge one another fairly and favorably, showing neither deference nor disregard based on the economic status of a person (Lev 19:9-15). Leviticus 19:32 says “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old”.
All of these verses are telling us to take care of the vulnerable populations of our society. In the United States, we are a very independent culture, with a do-it-yourself mentality. There are some circumstances when that serves us well, and other times when we could learn from the Three Musketeers with their “All for one and one for all” attitude.
Today, in the midst of this pandemic, I read this verse and then I look at the data. Taking into account the extremely limited population testing in America, we are seeing the mortality rate of COVID-19 highest in those over 60. Between age 60-70, the rate is 3.5%. By age 70-80, this jumps to 8%, and for those over 80, the rate frighteningly nears 15%. That’s a lot of numbers and they are changing as more data is generated. But the take away message is that the older the person, the worse this virus.
Staying home, keeping businesses closed, staying physically away, are all clear actions presently associated with the Biblical phrase to “show deference to the old.” For us, with these numbers, this is the part of the society that grew up during the Depression and during World War II – those who have come through the more than half the 20th century and have seen, if not created, all the growth and advancements of the world. To them – to you – does all our responsibility lay.
Only after we read about the deaths of Aaron’s sons, only after he experiences that trauma, can we really begin to see how by our actions are we holy. Only after experiencing grief do we fully understand our collective holiness.
Right now we are living with communal grief, if not also personal grief. It is hard to see our holiness, but it is there. It is there when we stay home. It is there when we wear a mask at the grocery store. It is there when we pick up the phone to check in on a friend. It is there when we reach out with a card. It is there when we pray. It is there in our hope of the future.
Because, you see, this global grief is giving us a new lens on our vulnerable people. We are unmasking systemic racism. We are underlining lack of healthcare for all. We are revealing the cracks of income inequality. We are uncovering our underbelly.
If we take note from our biblical tradition, we then can see these transgressions and become the holy people we are. We can make atonement on a personal and a societal level. And we can be the holy people we are. We can take our grief and turn it toward the betterment of all.
This Shabbat, may you find hope in your grief. May you be kind to yourselves and others. May you stay safe and healthy and protected. May you find ways to care for the vulnerable and to be cared for if vulnerable. May you see and value your holiness and the holiness of others.
Ken yehi ratzon.