Holiness After the Death of 6 Million

"The deeds of the ancestors are a sign for their descendants," said the medieval Jewish commentator Nahmanides. Sometimes the weekly Torah portion, describing the Israelites of old, seems to capture with amazing prescience the situation of contemporary Jews. So it is with last week's double portion of Torah, called in Hebrew by its opening key words: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Contemporary Jews inhabit the hyphen linking "after the death" with "you shall be holy." We struggle with that linkage and search for its theological sense as we seek to sanctify ourselves and the world despite and because of the ever-lengthening shadow of the Holocaust. At times the challenge seems truly formidable.

That is so, in the first place, because -- for a significant number of Jews and Christians (the precise number will never be known) -- the Holocaust has blocked the way to faith. How could God allow such a thing to happen to anyone, any people, let alone the people pledged since Sinai to divine service as a "kingdom of priests and holy nation" and arguably murdered by the Nazis because of that pledge? There has probably never been a more egregious case of the righteous suffering as the wicked triumphed -- a theological conundrum that has beset all religions that worship a righteous deity. How could a just and loving God stand by in the face of genocide?

Theologians and ordinary believers have offered various "explanations" for or "accounts" of the Holocaust -- all of them, to my mind, in vain. I believe that the death of the 6 million falls into the large realm of things that we human beings desperately want to understand but cannot and never will.

"The secret things belong to the Lord our God," says Deuteronomy (29:28). "The revealed things are given to us and our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah." In other words, we do not have the knowledge we want, but we do have enough to go on, the equipment of body and soul with which to do good, and ample reason for thanksgiving. Last week's Torah portion, I believe, points us powerfully in that direction.

What does God order Israel and its priests to do in the wake of the tragic loss of Aaron's two sons by fire at the altar? Acharei Mot begins with details of the way the community ritually set itself right with God and one another, and then sets forth other provisions of the symbolic sacred order of pure and impure that is meant to point the way toward ethical sacred order of Right and Wrong in individual and public life. Just before a list of transgressions in the sexual realm, Moses provides the rationale for all the commandments that come in the wake of "the death." The point is life. "You shall keep my laws and my statutes, by the pursuit of which a person shall live. I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:5).

I, like many commentators over the centuries, read these words not as threat (do this or you will die), but as promise, invitation, possibility. Act rightly, seek holiness and you shall experience a life of meaning, profundity, joy; what we might call Life with a capital L. Torah is meant to be a "tree of Life, for those who hold fast to it."

God creates the world in love, according to Jewish teaching -- creates human beings in love, pronounces the creation of world and humanity "very good," and enters into covenant with human beings as a whole, and with the Children of Israel in particular, to better fulfill the intention of making God's creation and God's creatures "very good." We are here to make the world more just, more compassionate, more loving.

This is harder to do after personal or collective tragedy. Experience or witness of suffering or evil calls the meaning of things into question and may lead one to doubt not only God's existence or providence but the very possibility of virtue. Jews and Christians should band together despite their differences, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, because we face the common threat of nihilism, chaos, belief in nothing -- a danger that far outweighs any theological disagreement between the two religions. The conviction of meaning, Heschel wrote, comes most readily when we act as God's partners, joining God in doing the deeds God wants done.

Parshat Kedoshim, the second half of this week's reading, drives home the promise of Life with a capital L by going back and forth among ritual and ethical injunctions, ever uniting the personal with the collective, the self and the community, service of God and service of humanity. "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" once again states possibility rather than threat. Serve the true God rather than idols of your own creation, take care of the poor and the stranger, do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, reprove your fellow rather than storing up hatred in your heart. "Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord" (19:1-18). Rather than dwelling even for a moment on this climactic utterance, one of the most famous passages in all of religious literature, the Torah continues with its litany of guidelines to holiness: "Do not let your cattle mate with a different species or sow your field with two kinds of seed" (v. 19).

Holiness is meant to pervade all of daily behavior, not to inhabit the high points of experience only. Love means reaching out toward neighbors and the world with the same care, regard and generosity we normally reserve for ourselves and those closest to us.

The ritual laws of Leviticus are foreign to modern individuals for whom animal sacrifice is not a matter of course (and may be repellent). Leviticus's ethical promise may seem equally foreign at a time when the world seems more out of joint than ever. We tend to be surprised when we witness altruism, but not by news of rape or murder. Reports of genocide and ethnic cleansing are horrifying but no longer astonishing; collective decisions for justice or sacrifice, let alone for love, are what occasion true wonderment.

Still, we know that all depends, now as much as ever, on the effort by individuals and societies to rise to holiness even in the face of death. We know too that life is filled with Life to the extent we make that effort and live in a community that does the same.