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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Lessons of Holiness Even In Death

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 25, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Vayikra, Acharei Mot, Kedoshim, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot

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From a literal perspective, the names of portions are nothing more than the first major word of the part of the Torah that is read during the week. It can, however, be argued that deep meaning actually lies within the names themselves. Two portions often read together, Acharei Mot that literally means after death, and Kedoshim that means holiness, are fine examples of this phenomenon.

What is the challenge that presents itself after death? In my early years of the rabbinate, I always felt that my challenge as a spiritual leader was to sit with bereaved families and help them undo the pain they were feeling. Death is a kind of darkness, a deep darkness. My role, I thought, was to remove that darkness.

But after my mother died, I stood before my congregation and apologized. Through that painful experience, I came to realize that the goal of removal is simply unrealistic. The goal is rather to find a way to cope with the suffering that comes with termination. I compared it to the following: Imagine walking into a dark room for the first time. Not knowing one’s way or one’s place, one trips over the furniture, unaware of which way to turn. However, after days and weeks and months and years, when one walks into that very same dark room, although the darkness still exists, with time we learn how to negotiate the furniture and we can make our way.

The truth is that after suffering a great loss, one is actually blessed if one constantly feels the darkness of the pain of termination. Such an emotion is reflective of the power of the relationship between the bereaved and the deceased. If there is no sense of darkness, it could mean that that sense of connection has been blurred-even lost. The challenge, however, as one continues to feel the darkness, is learning how to cope, to use the analogy, learning where the furniture is and while feeling the darkness, finding a way to move about.

The last time I was at my mother’s grave, my dear sister Suri, a woman of profound spirituality, turned to me and said, “Mommy is far away.” I keep thinking of that comment. My mother died on Yom Kippur 1983. It is certainly a long time ago. In a certain sense my sister was right-with every year the soul seems to move further and further away.

While not denying that reality, these portions remind us that after life (Acharei Mot), there can always be Kedoshim – a sense of continuum that is expressed through holiness. How so? The challenge of death is to keep the person who has died alive in spirit. Indeed the Talmud says, there are some people who are actually living yet are not really alive-they’re only going through the motions. On the flip side, there are others who, although physically dead, continue to live through the teachings they left behind and through those whom they have touched in life.

In Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, his introductory page includes the Talmudic statement that in a moment of great personal conflict, the biblical Yosef (Joseph) looked up and, in the window saw the image of his father Ya’akov (Jacob). It was Rav Soloveitchik’s way of saying that his writing and teachings continue to be powerfully influenced by his late father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik.

I bless you and ask you to bless me that we always remember those who have passed on, like walking through the darkened room full of furniture. And I pray that we always feel those who are closest tapping us on the shoulder and helping us along the complex path of life.