Acharei-Mot/K’doshim and the Stranger

This Shabbat we come to a double portion of Torah that has occupied scholars for centuries. The verses in these sections are the subject of countless comments and teachings echo today. Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments regarding same sex marriages this week and the Biblical texts that are often referenced are from these sections. Likewise, Leviticus 19, the so-called “Holiness Code” stands as one of the great chapters in our literary history, outlining, if you will, a one chapter summary of Jewish ethics and ritual practice. It is so powerful that we will confront it again on Yom Kippur. Indeed, the section “Acharei Mot” gives us an insight into the Yom Kippur day, now only a half year away.
Yes, the sections are powerful and, in some way controversial. And it is tempting to focus on the well known passages. However, for us this week, I would like to look at one little phrase of one verse. We read in Leviticus 16:29 an instruction regarding self denial on the tenth day of the seveneth month (this will become Yom Kippur). We are told that we are to do no manner of work in the practice of that self-denial, “neither the citizen or the stranger who dwells among you”. The Hebrew of that last phrase is “ger b’tochechem”. Some translations have the meaning as alien, some as proseletyte and some as stranger. It is a look at this “stranger” that I wish to offer you.
An interesting and thought provoking commentary from Etz Hayim (p. 684) states: “Each of us carries a stranger inside of us, a part of us that is alien to our essential self. Each of us must confront this “stranger” as we examine ourselves on Yom Kippur”. So I ask you, who is this stranger for you? For each of us, myself included. I wonder if, as we get a little older, we do not become more aware of this other self? Is this stranger a symbol of regrets? Of choices not taken or paths not walked? And how do we handle this “stranger” in our midst? Is it always there? The torah portion gives us a glimpse into what we are charged to do on Yom Kippur, one day a year. Yet, here we are, months away and the passage reminds us, perhapas, that we are made up of many “selfs”. WHo knows that in our life transitions, when that “stranger” self is welcomed into our soul as a new self.
One thing is sure. We continue to be complex and the sum of many many parts or “selfs”. To deny any of them may be to deny a part of who we really are. The challenge, then, is to honor each part of our self and to understand how best to
live so that these various “selfs” act, as Leviticus 19 tells us, for holiness.
Rabbi Richard F Address

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