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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת אחרי מות-קדשים, תש״פ

Parshat Aharei Mot-K'doshim, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

You Shall Be Holy - You Are a Worthwhile Person

On my first day of orientation at Swarthmore College, all of the incoming freshmen were gathered into the auditorium to watch a little play that ended with us all chanting together, “You are a worthwhile person. You are a worthwhile person.” The student body had recently had some issues with self confidence related to Swarthmore’s academic intensity. The institution was now trying to find the balance between bestowing responsibility upon its students and reminding us that, no matter what, each of us had intrinsic value.

Right in the middle of the book of Leviticus, God instructs Moses to gather the entire congregation of Israel, not just priests and elders, but truly everybody, to remind them, Kedoshim tih’yu, ki kadosh ani Adonai eloheikhem. “You all shall be holy, for I - Adonai your God - am holy” (Lev. 19:2). In other words, you are intrinsically a worthwhile person. Why? Because you are modeled after God, who is holy. In the context of Torah this marks the beginning of a parashah that the commentator Rashi calls “the majority of the essence of Torah,” a parashah that includes a verse coined by the Talmudic Rabbi Akiva as “the most important rule in the Torah.” Love your fellow as yourself. Parashat Kedoshim includes a long list of commandments that surround Rabbi Akiva’s favorite. The vast majority of these commandments rely on the acceptance of the worthwhile nature of ourselves and others. I am a useful, holy enough person to perform an act of goodness. This stranger in front of me is a useful, holy enough person to be worth my act of goodness. And with my act of goodness, I demonstrate my gratitude for my Creator, who gave me this knack for compassion.

Let’s look for just a moment at some of the commandments we are given in Parashat Kedoshim…

Leave the corners of your field and any fallen produce for the poor. Respect your parents. Keep Shabbat. Don’t worship idols. Don’t deceive your fellow. Don’t break a promise. Don’t steal. Pay your workers on time. Don’t oppress your fellow. Don’t curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. Judge the poor and the wealthy equally and righteously. Don’t slander. Don’t stand idly by the blood of your fellow. Rebuke your fellow but do not bring sin upon her. Do not take vengeance or keep grudges. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the stranger as yourself. Do not mix different types of fabric or mate different species of plants or animals. Don’t get a tattoo or deliberately cut your skin. Do not engage in divination or go to see a necromancer. Do not sell your daughter into promiscuity. Respect your elders. Treat the stranger and the citizen alike. Keep fair weights in business. Don’t sacrifice children. Don’t adulter.

Next year, I would like to take those couple of months during which we read Leviticus and spend each week on just one of these mitzvot, as so many of them hold the incredible dual power of self-respect and respect of another human being. “You shall be holy,” is not just a command to do specific deeds, but a statement of who you already have the capacity to be.

At this moment in time, you may be frustrated with your inability to get out and do and help; for you, kedoshim tih’yu means that you are a worthwhile person, no matter what you are able to do right now. Simply treating the other person in the aisle at the supermarket with grace and keeping your promises to the people with whom you live are mitzvot in themselves. And even if you are not in contact with so many others, our tradition provides simple mitzvot in the order of saying blessings, wearing a tallit, lighting Shabbat candles, and practicing kashrut. These mitzvot can remind us of all that we can accomplish for the sake of recognizing our own holiness, even in a time of isolation. These ritually oriented mitzvot can train us towards the regular practice of intentional deeds in the comfort of our own homes. And if you are one of the many who are working more than normal, perhaps without the recognition or compensation for the amount of work you are taking on, remember that you, too, are holy enough to deserve love from strangers, respect from students and employers and children. Remember that with each employee you pay on time, each product you present at a fair price, you are fulfilling what so many commentators state to be the absolute essence of Torah.

You are a worthwhile person, and yet, especially in a world we are still struggling to understand, you will make mistakes. Parashat Kedoshim comes directly after Aharei Mot, the parashah that outlines the repentance-focused traditions of Yom Kippur. Before any of our interpersonal responsibilities are laid out in the Torah, we are reminded that forgiveness is achievable; that for all of our holiness, we are not perfect. In time, regardless of which restrictions are lifted or kept, we will figure out how to achieve and demonstrate and reach out again. We will be able to ask for the forgiveness of not acting like ourselves during this time of uncertainty. And with that possibility of forgiveness, we will once again be able to take risks in compassion and outreach, working, volunteering, voting, and speaking with the goal of convincing each person we meet, “You are a worthwhile person.” Shabbat Shalom.