04/19/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

The Aftermath


In Judaism, we read a portion (parsha) of the Torah every Sabbath for the entire year. Sometimes, depending on the Jewish calendar, we read a double portion as is the case this week when we read Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The pairing of these words, can be read as: "After the deaths [are] holy ones" or "holy things."

In the sequence of the Torah, the reference is to the death of Aaron's sons, who were recognized as holy ones indeed -- they were anointed priests -- but had acted impulsively, perhaps in a moment of religious ecstasy. As a result, God warns Aaron not to come into the holy areas at all times, and in fact to the Holy of Holies (the innermost and most sacred part of the Jewish tabernacle and Temple in Jerusalem) only once a year. Then God gives the rules for Yom Kippur. It seems important that strictures be established to prevent what, at the time of the golden calf episode, was referred to as "the people breaking loose." Their energy had to be constrained and redirected.

The specific regulations for the priests are followed in the next parsha by commands that applied to all of the Jewish people: "Speak to the children of Israel and tell them..." Repeatedly, the whole people are called to responsibility. Kedoshim spells out a whole series of commandments that apply to all aspects of Jewish lives. To our inner life ("Do not hate your brother in your heart") and to our speech ("Do not go about as a tale-bearer"). Intimate relationships are singled out as important in the laws of forbidden unions, while even the details of clothing, shatnes (prohibited mixtures of wool and linen) are discussed. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch notes, concerning many of these, that they bring attention to "the law of l'mino," which means "according to its kind." Each and every species and type must, Hirsch says, be respected and honored.

"Holy things," we must conclude, are not about ecstasy but rather, about embodiment. Attention to the details of the remarkable order of creation, and our relationship to it, goes hand in hand with mindfulness about our own attitudes and words, lest they in some way mar our relations with others. Holiness concerns our attention to an interwoven web of relationships to things, people and God. We might say, in 21st century language, it has to do with being fully present and committed.

But there is more. "After the deaths, holiness": Holy acts MUST be done. An even fuller commitment to life is the only thing that can save us collectively from the finality of death.

How sad that here, in this week of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we had to face yet another tragedy, the deaths and bodily mutilations of dozens of people who were celebrating life, health and the gift of the human body. Yet we also saw that after these deaths, not a moment was lost: People rushed to save others. After such an abomination of evil, human beings again take up the cause of life.

So many times, after a tragic loss, families and friends band together to create something that will make the world a better place. Judea Pearl is an outstanding example, for the life-enhancing work he and his family have undertaken after the murder of his son Daniel, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal murdered by terrorists because he was a Jew. But one could name many more. And in the Jewish calendar, we see a parallel dynamic. In this same week, Jews around the world remembered other times when lives were lost -- Yom HaZikaron, the commemoration of Israel soldiers who have fallen in battle. And after commemorating those deaths, we remembered also Yom HaAtzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day, and the effort to establish something better in the world.

Violent deaths should never happen. But when we are witnesses to such evil, we must engage even more fully with the work of perfecting the world.

After the deaths -- holy things. Holy consciousness, holy acts, that bring compassion and courage into the world once more.