Thursday, May 3, 2012

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

The holiness code detailed in Leviticus 19 opens with the command: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The chapter then goes on to describe in exquisite detail the means to achieving holiness.  Surprisingly these laws are not by and large about rituals but instead about ethical precepts.  Do not steal.  Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.  Love your neighbor.

Throughout, the words of neighbor and fellow, stranger and poor are repeated.  We are commanded to love the neighbor. Do not hate your fellow in your heart.  Leave the gleanings of the field for the poor and stranger.

In ancient times it was not only a mandate to give tzedakah to the poor but to allow them to gather their own food.  Farmers were commanded not to pick their vineyards bare or gather the fallen crops.  These were left for the poor and stranger.  This not only allowed them to gather necessary food but preserved their dignity as well.  It is this command that is one of the opening dictates of chapter 19 and therefore creates the framework for the entire holiness code.  Concern for others is this chapter’s overarching theme.

Curiously there is also an introductory command about the shelamim offering.  On the surface one would think that this is about rituals and not ethics.  However the Torah also commands: “[The offering] shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire.  If it should be eaten on the third day, it is an offensive thing…”  (Leviticus 19:6-7)  One might surmise that the basis of this law is a concern for health.  In an age prior to refrigeration it would be disgusting to eat meat that was sitting on the table for three days!

This however is not the intention of the law’s prohibition.  The shelamim offering was a voluntary sacrifice that was offered by individuals or families in order to thank God.  Much of the sacrificial animal was eaten and enjoyed in a grand feast.  Wine was of course served.  The Torah deems it offensive if it was not a shared meal.  It was not acceptable for there to be leftovers.  That could only mean that not enough people were invited.  In a chapter that mandates the gleanings of the field be left for the poor and stranger how could even portions of a festive meal likewise be left uneaten?

This shelamim offering was meant to be shared.  The circle must be enlarged on occasions when we offer thanks.  One’s gratitude is expanded by sharing it with others.  The framework of this chapter and its fundamental teaching are that all the laws come to solidify our commitments to the larger community.  The chapter opens: “Speak to the whole community of the children of Israel…”  Edah, community, is its primary concern.  Every detail contained in its verses comes to strengthen the bonds of community.  We reach out to the neighbor and fellow.  We welcome the stranger and poor.

Even if a sacrifice emerged from private gratitude it only gained its true meaning by being shared with others.  It is not a proper thank you if it remains private.  Joy and gratitude must be surrounded by neighbors and fellows.  Even the poor and the stranger must be invited in.

Holiness is about sharing.  It is about drawing others into community.  And that is why the shelamim offering shares a root meaning with shalom, peace.  

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