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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:23-37) – After death speak holiness

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For all of the sacrifices and uncomfortable reading which we have in the Book of Leviticus (last week was all about menstrual blood and leprosy), in the middle of this Book we find the Torah portion of Kedoshim. And there we find the holiness code; one of those sections of Torah which we Reform Jews love to read. It is here that we read of our obligation to be holy as an emulation of God (Leviticus 19:2). Here too we have the instructions to leave the corner of the vineyard for the poor (Leviticus 19:10), the obligation not to curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14), and most famously we have the law: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). Kedoshim is a glorious Torah portion.

The Torah itself is divided 54 portions, and the Jewish year regularly includes anything from 50 Shabbatot up to 55 Shabbatot,[1] which means that in weeks like this one (and last week) we have a double Torah portion.

While we will be reading a section at WLS for the portion of Kedoshim, it is also the Torah portion of Acharei Mot. This first Torah portion begins: ‘And Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons’ (Leviticus 16:1) and it contains more sacrificial laws and a list of sexual offences. The name of the Torah portion comes from the link which we have with the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, which took place a few chapters earlier (Leviticus 10:1-3).

It means that this Shabbat is Acharei Mot, which means ‘after death’ and Kedoshim, which means ‘holiness’. It is strange to read this two Torah portions side by side as they contain very different subject matter. And yet when their names are placed together we read: ‘After death, holiness’. When this is added with next week’s Torah portion we have ‘Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor’, which as a sentence can be translated as ‘after death speak holiness’. The names of these three Torah portions provide us with an important lesson when dealing with death.

As a religion, we require that the mourners recite Kaddish with a minyan present, to prevent them from slipping into silence in the face of personal loss and tragedy. We do not allow the mourner to withdraw physically or verbally. Instead, tradition requires that three times a day, the mourner appears in public and speaks. We recognize that in the face of suffering and loss, it is often very hard to say anything. One can view the entire Jewish ritual connected with death and loss as a way of supporting the mourner and giving them time to grieve, while simultaneously ensuring that they do not, and cannot, slip into silence and solitude.

The challenge is that it can sometimes be difficult to approach someone who is mourning. We, as the friends and family, don’t know what to say, and we fear that our words will never suffice. But with very few words we can show a person that we do care. We might find it hard to speak to someone after they have suffered a bereavement; but if we keep in our mind this instruction: ‘after death speak holiness’, we will find words which will provide comfort. The words themselves are not as important, as the fact that we are speaking them. There is sacredness in our words when they are used to comfort and console, this is the holiness which we are instructed to speak after death.


[1] The Hebrew calendar follows a lunar cycle, and 7 times every 19 years an extra month is added so that festivals remain at the correct seasons, this is why people will often say ‘Rosh Hashannah is early this year’ because it can be anywhere from the beginning of September into October.

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