Karma and Kehunah: Aḥarei Mot-Kedoshim 5778

They’re a strange combination, Aḥarei Mot and Kedoshim. The former parashah focuses on an inaccessible ritual—possible only for a certain person, at a specific time, in a sacred place, from which we have been exiled for millennia. The Torah states, “no person may be in the tent of meeting when he [the priest] enters.” In Midrash Vayikra Rabba, Rabbi Abahu makes a radical claim that the high priest himself ceased being a person at the moment when the holy spirit rested on him, and his face lit up like a torch. The world of Aḥarei Mot is that of the most elite form of religious practice. In contrast, Kedoshim contends that any Israelite, at any time, in any place, may become like a priest in the tabernacle. An ordinary farmer may sanctify life, just like the most elite priest in the Temple. Through a program of ritual and ethics, Parashat Kedoshim establishes holiness as an accessible goal in the family, on the farm and among the people in town.

It is tempting to say that the second portion supersedes the first, making the arcane rituals of the tabernacle/temple obsolete, but it’s more complicated than that. The cultic system of Aḥarei Mot gives purpose and power to the DIY vibe of Kedoshim. The dangerous power of the Temple alerts us that there is also dangerous power in our religious service. Handled properly, our practice may invite blessing and peace. Handled poorly, it can provoke conflict, crisis and destruction.

The consequences of our conduct affect not only our own spiritual development, but also the lives of those around us. What about the lives of those still to come? Can holy or hateful behavior have consequences felt generations or even centuries later, like water seeping slowly down through layers of limestone? Is there a Jewish concept of karma? The term may be Sanskrit, but the idea is attested often within our own tradition.

One of my favorite rabbinic texts refers to the planks of acacia wood that stood upright as the frame of the tabernacle. The “standing acacia trees” (עצי שטים עמדים) elicited extensive rabbinic interpretation. In Bavli Yoma 72a and Sukkah 45b several explanations, all fascinating, are offered. The third explanation is that these staves are STANDING—lest you say their hope is lost, their chance is finished (i.e. once they have disappeared, they are no longer effective), they are still standing, forever and ever. The editor adds a similar explanation for the plaited garments of the priests, which are called bigdei s’rad (בגדי שרד). S’rad could also mean “remaining,” which allows the anonymous rabbi to claim that even in their absence, these priestly vestments somehow remain, and thus sustain future generations of Israel. By this reasoning, the fact that the tabernacle and then the Temples have faded into memory does not mean that they have lost their power. The service performed there inspires our own worship, and perhaps in some mysterious way, we are still blessed by the merit of our ancestors.

That is a lovely idea, but its counterpart is terrifying. If we may draw upon the merit of ancient ancestors, must we also suffer from their ancient crimes? This is the conceit of a recent novel by the Israeli novelist Ruby Namdar, with whom I am friendly, called The Ruined House. Written in Hebrew as הבית אשר נחרב, and translated into English by Hillel Halkin, it is set primarily in NYC during the summer of 5761/2001. Namdar tells the story of an elegant NYU professor named Andrew Cohen whose life is falling apart. A secular Jew, and yet a kohen, he does not know and never learns, that he is reliving an ancient grievance between the priests of the second temple—a grievance that created a spiritual disturbance that reverberates down through the centuries each year during the Three Weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av. The novel’s contention is that actions have dramatic consequences which cannot be perceived by either the original actors or the eventual targets. All they know is that something crazy and chaotic is happening to their previously sensible life.

The magical realism of Ruby’s novel feels both foreign and familiar. We often wonder why beautiful blessings come at certain times, and why such horrible suffering can break out just beside it. In the past few months I have felt a keen sense of gratitude for the remarkable blessings of my family—some are the product of hard work, but the most important features—health and stability—are outside of our control. At the same time, I have witnessed one friend after another deal with painful, frightening, and in some cases tragic setbacks—again, largely out of their control. It certainly makes no sense that I can discern. You can understand the temptation to seek explanation in trans-generational reward and punishment: The blessings of our lives may be explained as reiterations of ancient acts of virtue, while the curses are deemed recurrences of ancient insults and injuries.

Do I believe this? Not really. I don’t think that because some ancestor performed a special act of goodness and devotion that I am somehow blessed more than my neighbor, nor would I blame an illness (חס ושלום) on an earlier generation. However, it is quite obvious that our everyday actions do have an impact that goes far beyond our immediate perception. This is not fantasy but fact, and it should motivate us to serve God with extra devotion, filling the world with acts of kindness, witnessing the beauty and wonder of life, and doing all within our power to make it holy. When we do so, then even after our own death the holiness we have modeled will remain, and the world will become more worthy of the divine presence. Then our two Torah portions can form an integrated whole, allowing each of us to become like a priest in the holy of holies.

ויקרא פרק טז, יז

(יז) וְכָל אָדָם לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ עַד צֵאתוֹ וְכִפֶּר בַּעֲדוֹ וּבְעַד בֵּיתוֹ וּבְעַד כָּל קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל:

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשת אחרי מות פרשה כא ד”ה [יב] ולבשם (שם

וכל אדם לא יהיה באהל מועד (שם /ויקרא ט”ז/ יז). ר’ פינחס ור’ חלקיה בש’ ר’ אבהו אפילו אתם שכת’ בהן ופניהם פני אדם וגו’ (יחזקאל א, י) לא יהיה באהל מועד בבאו. בשנה שמת בה שמעון הצדיק אמ’ להן בשנה זו הוא מת. אמרו לו מנין אתה יודע, אמ’ להן בכל שנה ושנה זקן אחד לבוש לבנים ומתעטף לבנים נכנס עמי ויצא עמי שנה זו נכנס עמי ולא יצא עמי. אמ’ ר’ אבהו ומי יאמר שאדם היה והלא הקדוש ברוך הוא וכבודו היה נכנס עמו ויוצא עמו. אמ’ ר’ אבהו וכהן גדול לא אדם היה, אלא כההוא דאמ’ ר’ פינחס בשעה שהיתה רוח הקודש שורה עליו היו פניו בוערות כלפידים. עליו הוא אומר כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת (מלאכי ב, ז).

שמות פרק כו פסוק טו

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַקְּרָשִׁים לַמִּשְׁכָּן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִים:

בבלי יומא דף עב עמוד א

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מאי דכתיב עצי שטים עמדים, שעומדים דרך גדילתן. דבר אחר: עומדים – שמעמידין את צפויין, דבר אחר: עומדים, שמא תאמר אבד סברן ובטל סכויין – תלמוד לומר עמדים – שעומדין לעולם ולעולמים. (אמר) +מסורת הש”ס: [ואמר]+ רבי חמא בר חנינא: מאי דכתיב את בגדי השרד לשרת בקדש. [עמוד ב] אלמלא בגדי כהונה לא נשתייר משונאיהן של ישראל שריד ופליט.

רש”י מסכת יומא דף עב עמוד א. דרך גדילתן – העליון למעלה והתחתון למטה. שמעמידין את ציפויין – ציפוי הזהב מעמידין על ידי מסמרות, לשון אחר שלא התליעו ולא נפל ציפויין. שמא תאמר – משנגנזו אבד סיברן שלא ישובו עוד. ובטל סכויין – מה שאנו סוכין וצופין להן.

שרד – לשון שריד. [עמוד ב] אלמלא בגדי כהונה – שעל ידיהן מקריבין הקרבנות המכפרין על ישראל.

בבלי סוכה דף מה עמוד ב

אמר חזקיה אמר רבי ירמיה משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי: כל המצות כולן אין אדם יוצא בהן אלא דרך גדילתן, שנאמר עצי שטים עמדים. תניא נמי הכי: עצי שטים עמדים – שעומדים דרך גדילתן. דבר אחר: עמדים – שמעמידין את ציפוין. דבר אחר: עמדים – שמא תאמר אבד סיברם ובטל סיכויין, תלמוד לומר עצי שטים עמדים שעומדים לעולם ולעולמי עולמים.