Parashat Aharei Mot/Kedoshim
Leviticus 16:1-20:27 | April 2021
Where and when do you experience a sense of the holy? In synagogue, immersed in prayer and song or carrying a Torah scroll? Watching a radiant sunset or catching a first glimpse of the new moon against the deep, blue evening sky? Holding a newborn or gazing into the eyes of a beloved partner or cherished friend?
Recently I was overcome with a sense of holiness in an unexpected place. When I arrived at the Kaiser Permanente Covid Clinic in Richmond, California for my second covid vaccination, I joined the outdoor registration line with some trepidation, because I’d had some adverse reactions to the first shot, nevertheless aware of how fortunate I was to be able to receive this life-saving vaccine. Right away I noticed how much more efficient and humanely organized the Clinic had become since my first visit, five weeks earlier. At every phase of the process, masked aides stood ready to welcome, guide, and reassure the people of all ages arriving for their shots.
The line moved swiftly, and I was soon seated at one of the many inoculation stations in a large, noisy, indoor space repurposed for this use. A petite young woman in red scrubs administered the vaccine, while an athletic looking fellow with tattooed biceps monitored a computer, making sure that I was me, that I would receive the proper vaccine, and that it was all accurately recorded. As the computer guy handed me my “I’ve been vaccinated” sticker, I sensed him smiling behind his mask. “Congratulations!” he said. I felt my heart open and relief begin to trickle into my body. “Thank you for all your good work, for all you’re doing,” I said. For risking your lives to serve me and all these people, I thought. “Thank you for coming in!” he responded, and directed me to an area of red chairs at the far end of the room to wait for any immediate adverse reaction to the vaccine.
As I made my way toward the chairs, a slim young man in blue scrubs and hospital mask, with dark curly hair and black rimmed glasses, his face covered by a plastic shield and a stethoscope around his neck, approached and called out, “Diane Elliot?” “Yes!” I answered. “How did you know my name?” I felt strangely seen, known in the midst of this anonymous hubbub. “Oh,” he explained, as he led me to one of several curtained cubicles at one side of the room, “since you haven’t been able to come recently for regular check-ups and tests, we thought we’d take advantage of your being here to check in with you, to remind you of what care you’re due for and see how you’re doing.” They must’ve tagged me at the registration desk.
The health care worker, perhaps a nurse-practitioner, sat down near a desk with a computer on it and invited me to sit across from him, a few feet away. My eyes started to well up as I felt, for the first time in over a year, the simple human connection of sitting panim el panim with a caring stranger, someone I didn’t know but who was evidently concerned for my welfare. He saw my tears over the edge of my two masks and said, “I’m so sorry, we don’t have any kleenex here!” Fortunately, I’d shoved a couple of tissues in my pocket before leaving home, and as I wiped my eyes (I wouldn’t be able to blow my nose until I got back to my car), I expressed my gratitude for all he and other medical workers had given and risked during this past year. He responded, “The day that we received our shots, we had to wait in line, too. We medical workers aren’t used to waiting in line for care! But the moment that we entered that room, everyone became quiet. It was like being in a meditation hall. We were all crying.”
This disclosure brought more tears to my eyes. I told him that I was a clergy person, and that I felt so privileged to be able to work from home all these months, yet how challenging it’s been to hold people in their grief and fear, their illness and losses, people mourning their loved ones, especially grief-stricken that they’d not been able to be at their sides, to hold their hands as they passed. He responded with empathy, as he gently asked me about various medical conditions, my stress levels, and advised me about routine tests and inoculations I would need in coming months. When I rose to go and wait out the rest of my 30-minute vigil on a red chair, I thanked him again for his service. “It was so wonderful to be able to spend these 15 minutes talking with you, instead of sitting alone, waiting for some possibly bad reaction to the vaccine!” I could feel his smile behind his mask, as he reached toward me and said, “I’d hug you if I could!” The little curtained cubicle in the Kaiser Covid Clinic had become a mini-holy-of-holies.
This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, comprising five key chapters in the Book of Leviticus, teaches us about the nature of holiness as our ancestors perceived it. While much of Leviticus contains detailed injunctions for the priests about how to purify and maintain holy space and time through korbanot (sacrifices) and rituals of purification to be performed in the Mishkan, the “holy precinct,” this week’s parshiot also center Divine imperatives for living each day in ways that render the space within and between people holy.
You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind…. You shall not spread gossip amidst your people, nor stand by while the blood of your neighbor is shed—I am YHVH. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but call out their behavior, so as not to bear their sin. You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people, v’ahavta l’reyakhah kamokhah, ani YHVH, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself, I am YHVH. (Lev. 19:14a, 16-18)
Here we find the roots of many practices for self-examination and refinement, developed over centuries, that enkindle what contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis calls “everyday holiness,” practices rooted in compassion for self and others, in the ability to sit in another’s seat, to perceive the world as another perceives it, and to act compassionately on their behalf. We hear how each of us is called to holy service, not only in the spaces we have designated as sacred, but in the streets, in our homes, in all the mundane spaces and the web of daily relationships in which our lives unfold.
We are living in what often seems to be an unholy time. For the past year, many of us have been isolated, cut off from family members and friends and the connective tissue of casual social interactions that hold and support us. We have witnessed the dire effects of public discourse being awash with slander, lies, and vitriol. We have painfully experienced, through the power of the media, what it means to “stand by the blood of our neighbors”—on the street in Minneapolis and in many other cities, in the very Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.—how anger and inciting speech and fear can infect whole communities with the inability to perceive the humanity of other people, much less to love them. This hurts all of us on levels we can hardly fathom. It’s a contagion no less deadly than the viral pandemic that has upended our world for the past year and more.
Yet, embedded within the overlapping series of crises of these difficult days, are sparks of holiness, embers waiting to be fanned into bright flame by the ruakh ha-kodesh, the holy breath that animates each of us. This is the “revolutionary love” of which Sikh lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur writes in her powerful, poignant memoir and call to action, See No Stranger. “Do not hate your brother or your sister in your heart.” Speak up, but only from a place of love. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because, as the Baal Shem Tov famously taught, your neighbor is the same as yourself.
For many of us, this pandemic year has been a time to take stock, to rethink our lives and relationships, to find new ways of working and serving. The spread of the pandemic and the enforced separations of this past year have brought home to us as never before our interdependence, how the well-being of all humans on this beautiful, amazing planet is interconnected as surely as the mycelial network that connects the vast fungal forests, as surely as the oceans of the world meld every river, creek, and mountain stream into one vast body of water.
What shines for me through the central mitzvot of this week’s parashah is their underlying intention of tending connection. We are to maintain certain membranes, certain restraints, to “mask up,” if you will, in order to honor the other, so that ultimately we may connect with more clarity and compassion, balance, and harmony; so that love may flow more freely between us and our family members, friends, and co-workers; so that we may act with compassion toward strangers; so that we will know ourselves to be in community with plants and animals, water and soil and air; and so that we may connect deeply and regularly with the Divine Oneness that sources and nurtures all connectivity. May we be blessed to remember, more and more, our own holiness and the holiness of the world. May the holiness of clear, compassionate, respectful connection flow through, enliven, and enlighten our every day.
 Morinis, Everyday Holiness, The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (2008).
 Kaur, See No Strange, A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (2020).
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2021