Parshah Acharei Kedoshim by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Acharay Mote-Kedoshim

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). This is the verse from
which the entire book of Leviticus gets its byname, the “Holiness Code.” This parsha/Torah
portion, connected to Acharay Mote/”After the Death [of Aaron’s Sons],” includes a great many
mitzvote/commandments intended to infuse our lives with holiness, both mitzvote bain adam la-
Makom (commandments between human beings and God) and mitzvote bain adam l’ray-ay-hoo
(commandments between human beings). The former include the prohibition against wearing
shatnez: that is, wool and linen mixed together—probably because they were blended in the
priestly garments, or because they were animal and vegetable products, and hence taboo to be
mixed. The latter include any number of civil laws—prohibiting vengeance killing, divination,
incest, idolatry, and other foreign concepts which might tempt the Israelites into assimilating into
the pagan nations surrounding them.

I was attracted by the following verse: “You shall rise up before the sayva/aged head, and
honor the face of the zakayn/elder, and [thereby] fear your God; I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32;
translation mine). The above verse might seem simple, but it gives rise to all sorts of problems:
what is the difference between the sayva and the zakayn? Why rise for one, but honor the other?
What is honor, anyway? And why does the verse include the oft-repeated, “Fear your God?” For
the explanation, we go to Rashi [acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (1040-1105)], prince
among Biblical commentators, and unique for the simplicity of his Hebrew, even when
explaining abstruse concepts.

Here are Rashi’s answers: we are ordered to rise before an old person—what if the
old person is a criminal? Therefore, the Torah adds, “an elder,” meaning, “a person who has
acquired wisdom.” What is honor? It means not to sit in an elder’s place, not to interrupt
or contradict them. One might be chutzpadik/nervy enough to pretend not to see the elder;
that is why the verse adds, “You shall fear your God—I am the Lord.” We live in a world of
superficialities, about which the great writer, Victorian social critic, and sexual rebel, Oscar
Wilde (1854-1900), said, “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked
about.” How we live and treat others can be judged only by God, who alone knows our truest
intentions, and is able to see deep into the recesses of our heart.

 

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