What a week this has been. Boston, earthquake in Iran, the explosion in West, Texas and yet another youth suicide in Truckee.
On the other hand, it was a week of astounding holiness, with people leaping up to respond, giving blood, offering housing, staying with the wounded, being present.
How fitting somehow that this is the week in which we read the double torah portion Acharei Mot – Kedoshim. If you put those names together, they read After Death, Holiness. (I am definitely not the only person to make this connection this week, it fairly leaps off the page.)
The deaths referred to in the Torah portion are those of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, the ones who offered unexplained strange fire. After their deaths, we learn the laws of Yom Kippur, while the Holy of Holies becomes off limits except on the holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur. Then we reach parashat Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, the laws that create a working community. And indeed, we will read this chapter again on Yom Kippur afternoon.
The behaviors that will make us holy speak of how we deal with the Divine, with the important people in our lives, and with the people around us: our siblings, our parents, our neighbors, our workers, the vulnerable in our community and the strangers who enter it. We are told to have compassion on the immigrant, the poor; treat our seniors with love and respect. We are told to watch our feelings: no hate in our hearts, love our neighbor, revere our parents. We are told to take action: do not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor, keep the Sabbath, pay our workers wages in a timely manner and allow the poor to glean in our fields, be honest in business, honor all life, as we remove the blood from all our meat, and respect the natural order by allowing trees to mature before harvesting them.
Think of how many of these were enacted in Boston this week. Acharei mot, kedoshim: after death, holiness.
These rules are about recognizing that we make choices every day, literally life and death choices, as we saw the firefighters respond—and lose their lives—in the explosion in West, Texas, or the young man here who succumbed to depression mixed with alcohol mixed with a break-up, or the people who helped others in Boston.
We make choices to live a life devoted to holiness, to making things better for those around us: standing for our elders, treating people with disabilities with respect, revering our parents, caring for the poor or the bleeding. We make choices to love our neighbor like ourselves. We can be like Perry Calvin, a firefighter who wasn’t even on the force in West, but happened to be nearby at a training and went because that’s what firefighters do. And he is dead, now, leaving behind a wife, two children and one on the way who will never know him.
Rev. Paul Gaffney, one of my peers in my CPE class, talked yesterday about a conversation he had with one of his parishioners, among the homeless community in San Rafael. One person posited that each interaction we have with another person involves someone either asking for love or offering love. When he has a fight with his wife, Paul suggested, if he can remember that they are each asking for love, he can offer it more freely. Okay, that one is easy. Then he went on to say that when someone is holding a gun to our head, that person is also asking for love—not very effectively, not with the right tools, but still, somewhere underlying this violence, is the plea for love, and we can choose to offer love rather than fear.
I’m not sure how I think about this in one-on-one interactions with a gun to my head, and indeed may puzzle with it right up to Yom Kippur. Our class argued: one person believes firmly that evil resides in this world and evil people who perpetrate it, while another believes that evil acts are done by damaged people, who don’t have the tools to ask for love. I felt my own energy rise at these statements: I generally don’t think of people as evil, but then, I can’t imagine thinking that Hitler only did evil acts and was not evil himself. Whether that evil came from nature or nurture, he, like Pharaoh, was evil, and evil by choice after some point. You might remember the teaching that Pharaoh’s hardened heart could be described as the habits of a lifetime, the paths carved by his behavior and his thinking of himself as all powerful, and the rest of the world as lesser. When it would have served his people to let us go, his heart was hardened into hard core refusal to change, until his world was destroyed, by his own inability to adapt.
But I keep thinking about the people in Boston, the selfless acts, offering housing, blood, food, space, and I see people offering love. They loved their neighbor, they did not stand idly by…
And that way, holiness lies.
Today I sat with a woman who knew the most recent Truckee suicide well. She cried to me, “Where was God? How could God make him so miserable? How can God make life so hard?” She was grieving, and theological arguments would not work. I told her I believe that God is in the people who love her and who care about her, who support her. But I also told her, when she asked, that my tradition—our tradition—does not believe her friend would not be lost forever, because we know that suicide is a result of an illness, as much as a heart attack is the result of an illness. I shared her pain in feeling God’s absence, or, for her, even worse, God’s abandonment. I held her hand, stroked her face, and I called her pastor to send her more support. I prayed with her that her doctor would watch her closely, that her church would surround her with love, that she would feel the love of her friends and the shelter of peace holding her. After death, I prayed for holiness.
One more story for the week: one of our own is healing from a serious infection. She has always be a strong, healthy woman, hardly ever sick. So when she got sick, she did not realize how sick she was, until last Saturday, when the Sisterhood book group met at her house. After lunch, the other women encircled her and told her that she was going to the hospital right now: they would clean her kitchen and put things away, but it was time to go. She argued, in the confusion of her illness, but they stood adamant.
She went, and had she waited much longer, we would have lost her. Our community took its responsibility seriously and they saved her, and the whole world that she is the center of.
This chapter of Vayikra, the Holiness Code, is about how to live together, how to create a society that cares for each other, the believes in mutual responsibility, and believes that our feelings are important, but our actions speak louder. It is about our choices: to be holy or to be profane; to be holy or to be violent; to keep silent or to speak up; to reach out or stay home; to say Hineini, here I am, or to turn away. May we all celebrate those people who step forward, who answer the call, and may we be grateful that we live in the midst of such holiness.