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Life's About Longevity, If Infused With Meaning
It is traditional to wish someone celebrating a birthday ad me'ah v'esrim -- "until 120." However, living a long life is not enough. No matter how many -- or how few -- years we're given, we want them to count. And with this week's double portion, the Torah describes God's prescription for a meaningful life.
Toward the end of Acharei Mot, the Torah says: "You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live; I am the Lord." And Kedoshim opens: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." To truly live, we are to obey God's laws and strive to be holy. But what does that mean?
If I were to ask you to conjure up the image of a "holy" person, what would he or she look like? Perhaps you might imagine a man wrapped in tallit and tefillin in a book-lined study poring over holy books late into the night or a woman covering her eyes as she lights the Shabbat candles.
The Torah sees it differently. The very first words of Kedoshim are: "Speak to the whole Israelite community ... ." Rashi comments: "This teaches that this section was stated in an assembly -- the whole Israelite community -- because the majority of the essentials of the Torah are summarized in it.
Kedushah, "holiness," requires not just that an individual live by God's laws, but that he or she also work to create a community that operates in accordance with God's commandments and tries to do "what is right and good in the sight of God."
How so? Prescriptions for a holy community are found in many of the specific commandments of Kedoshim: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field ... you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger."
"You shall not steal." Ibn Ezra comments that this is written in the plural to teach that one who sees someone else steal and keeps silent is also considered a thief.
"You shall not render an unfair decision -- do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly."
"Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." You are obligated to act to help someone in distress.
"Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him." If you see your neighbor doing something wrong and do not attempt to correct him, you will also incur guilt for your inaction.
In 1964, in New York City, 38 witnesses watched from their apartment windows as a 28-year-old woman, Kitty Genovese, was stabbed to death. No one called the police for half-an-hour. Why didn't anyone try to stop this killing? They told the police they didn't want to get involved.
Now, what they did wasn't illegal. There is no law in New York City or elsewhere in America that requires witnesses to call the police or to come forward to testify when a crime is committed. It wasn't illegal, but it was wrong.
It's possible to keep to the letter of the law -- and miss the point. The Mishnah in Sotah lists among those who ruin the world the hasid shoteh, "the pious fool" -- someone who, for example, refuses to save a woman who is drowning because it would be improper for him to look at her when she is immodestly dressed.
But God's laws are not ends in themselves. They are the means by which we build a holy society and live a holy life -- a life filled with reverence for God and concern for our fellow human beings.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa. E-mail her at: ravnewmark@ earthlink.net.