Posted on May 1, 2020
A tale was told by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the ancient book of Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, about a group of people who were together on a ship. It was a beautiful day, but as the afternoon wore on, each longed for home and each retreated to his or her own spot to wait out the time. Gradually, a number of passengers became aware of a grinding, scraping sound coming from near the center of the boat. The looked over and realized that one of their fellow passengers had taken out a knife and was gouging at the wood underneath his seat.
They panicked as they realized that he might cut through to the water underneath and yelled across the boat at him, “What are you doing?!??”
“What’s it to you?”, the man replied. “It’s only under my own seat that I am drilling—and I know how to swim!”
In the rabbinic commentaries and sermons I have read from my colleagues around the country these last two months, this story has come up again and again. We are in time—so well we are aware—that the actions of any one of us, though we might only intend to be affecting ourselves, has the potential to have a devastating effect on so many around us.
So many of us are struggling being at home during this time of physical isolation, but, thank goodness, the large majority of people in our country understand that there’s no such thing as affecting only ourselves right now—our coughing, our sneezing, our breathing out in public right now, can have an affect like a drill in the bottom of a boat, potentially taking not only ourselves into the water but taking others with us, whether we know them or not.
And the fact is, on top of that, that while in many ways we really all are in the same boat—all at risk of coronavirus, all in the same plight of needing to isolate—we are in fact in this boat together regardless of who can swim or not, who has a life jacket or not, who has others who rely on them to stay afloat or not. We’re in this together, but our situation affects some in very different ways than others.
We read a double Torah portion this week: two sections of Torah back to back. The first portion is called Acharei Mot, which means, “after the death,” and it talks about the instructions that the Moses’s brother Aaron, the first High Priest, receives following the unexpected death of two of his children, who got themselves into some kind of trouble when bringing a sacrifice to the Tent of Meeting in the Wilderness. He has duties in his job that must be followed, regardless of the burden and grief he is carrying.
The second portion we read is called K’doshim, which is a word you might recognize because it comes from the same root as “Kaddish” and “kiddush” and “k’dushah.” It means “holy.” And the portion begins, “K’doshim t’hiyu – Be holy for I, the Eternal One your God, am holy.” It lists some of the most profound mitzvot in our Torah: the commandments about how we are responsible for the most vulnerable members of our society: that we must leave the corners of our fields for the poor and the alien; that we need to pay laborers at the time their wage is due; that we must not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block in front of the blind; that we must each love our neighbor as ourself. K’doshim t’hiyu, be holy. We are all in the same boat.
It has long been noted that it feels like no accident that these two Torah portions come together, one after the other:
Acharei Mot… K’doshim T’hiyu – in the face of death… be holy.
Acharei Mot… K’doshim T’hiyu – after recognizing our mortality… do right in the world.
Acharei Mot… K’doshim T’hiyu – in the crushing awareness of our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of those we love… do good, not only for our own families but for all others who are vulnerable too.
If we are lucky enough to still have an income, it is time to make sure that we are offering the corners of our fields to those who do not.
If we owe someone money for their labor and we can afford it, it is time to pay them so that they can feed themselves too.
If there is someone who is being demeaned and cannot defend themselves, it is time to speak up for them.
If there is a stumbling block barring someone’s way to safety, we need to remove it as quickly and as best we can.
Acharei Mot, in the face of the reality of our own uncertainty—
K’doshim T’hiyu, now is exactly the time to be the holiest we can be.
Let’s go do right and good, my friends—
And, for heaven’s sake, if you know that guy who’s drilling under his own seat, I don’t know what’s going on with him, but he’s clearly having a hard time, so please go check on him, go give him a hug (well, a virtual hug), and take his knife away.