Acharei-Mot/K’doshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) Drawing Back the Curtain of Fear

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            Acharei-Mot/K’doshim this week’s double portion has enough to keep Torah study classes going for weeks. From the drama surrounding the aftermath of Nadab and Avihu’s death, to the scapegoat ritual, to the elucidation of laws dealing with sexual issues (Lev. 18) to the so-called Holiness code and repetition of the 10 Commandments (Lev. 19); we have a wealth of intriguing verses. As rich as these chapters are, I would like to look at a section that we often overlook, but I think has impact for us at this stage of life.

            Let’s go to the very beginning of these portions, Leviticus 16:2. “God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine (ha-kodesh), behind the curtain (parochet) in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover”. Now, I would like you to play with the text and ask yourself what the role of a curtain may be. As a Midrash tells us, when we keep a curtain closed, sight is limited. When we draw back that curtain, light may enter, we can see and be seen. Ask do we keep that curtain to our soul closed, even now, as we get older? And if so, what does that mean?

            The instruction to Aaron is quite clear and brutal. You cannot just go into the Holy of Holies whenever you wish. To do so courts death. There are rules associated with proper worship. Not much room for flexibility here (just ask Aaron’s sons!). Now I ask you to just allow these texts to speak to you. Are we often afraid to think in new spiritual terms? Life has taken many of us in many new directions. Do we still carry a more childlike spirituality or theology? Are we afraid, so to speak, to part that curtain and see or think of new directions? Are we concerned that, in drawing back that curtain, we will, like Dorothy in Oz, see new truths? There is security in the status quo, but does the Judaism that we practice now speak to our life stage? Have we become, in our older age, spiritually inflexible?

            This is a term that Dr Kenneth Pargament speaks about in his book “Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy” when he writes “Fear lies at the root of spiritual inflexibility. The fear, in part, is psychological. It is a fear of uncertainty, confusion, and aimlessness. Spiritual inflexibility, as Pargament continues, is security for some. It provides “a clear-cut sense of meaning and direction in a confusing and rapidly changing world filled with diverse individuals and lifestyles” (299). This certainly speaks to our world today as we see a greater concentration of rigid or inflexible religious beliefs. The curtain to these souls remain closed.

            Let me suggest that we can look at these two portions as another challenge on the part of tradition to continue to evolve. For in Acharei Mot we see classic expressions of religious practices that restrict. But, I think, the response to that is the second portion, K’doshim which speaks to the reality that acting with a sense of holiness transcends everything. Indeed, Leviticus 19 is a sort of one chapter revue of how we are charged to behave; from ritual to family to economic life: we do holy because we are in a relationship with the Sacred. I suggest that this section reminds us that we live with people, in life and that we change and grow as we live and that we need not fear to part the curtain that hides our true soul and embrace the future. We have survived as a people by doing just that.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Richard F Address


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