Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

I called my mother today. My mom is not your stereotypical Jewish mom. She lets me know that she is happy to hear from me. She rejoices that we can argue politics. She is as proud of her son the Rabbi and her daughter the lawyer as she was of her son the Doctor. So, for all of the anecdotes about Jewish moms, mine is pretty cool. That said, as we all talk about the foibles of “our Jewish moms,” even when we complain about things that they say or do when asked the question, ”So, who is your favorite person?” The most often heard answer? “Mom!”
This week, in what we call the “Holiness Code,” we are told to hold our parents in awe. The text in Exodus and Deuteronomy, tells us to honor our father and our mother. Here it says, “Ish Imo v’aviv ti-ra-oo – Each person shall hold his mother and father in awe.” Mom is first. Now, it is true that not everyone will translate this text the same way. The word, “ti-ra-oo” confuses us. Some will translate it as “fear.” So, by this convention, the text would read, “Fear his Mom and his Dad.”

Throughout Scripture, we read of “yirat Adonai.” Many choose to read this as “fear of God.” We call the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) the “Yamim Nora-eem.”Ti-ra-oo, yirat, and nora-eem are all different forms of the same word. Prefixes, suffixes, and vowel structures root in the way in which we use the word. Sages have debated for years over the meanings of this root word because it has a contextual ambiguity. Do we fear God or hold God in awe? Are the holy days the days of fear or the days of awe? How many times do we hear the words “fear of God.” As a child, I know I heard it plenty … every time I was in trouble someone wanted to put the fear of God into me.

Now, I am not a sage, but I have to believe that if the only reason we live faithful lives is that we are afraid not to do so, we have a problem. I see it all around me. Too many of us live more in fear than in celebration. Look at the violence all around us. Why do we lock our doors, stay in well-lit areas, fear the news of conflagration of hostility between nations, even second guess the motives of people who say that they love us? At the same time that we speak of a God of love, we live in a world of fear.

Perhaps this is the root of the problem. We have used the word fear so freely and so often that it has become commonplace in our society. We are ok being afraid. We are okay thinking about even love in terms of fear. We don’t speak out because we are afraid. We then allow madness to perpetuate making us only more afraid. We don’t break laws because we are afraid. We talk about punishment as a deterrent as opposed to rehabilitation. Would it not make better sense not to break laws because we respect them?

Then we speak about our parents and God and still feel comfortable in the context of scripture and prayer employing fear as a path to spirituality. Is it love for God or fear of God that makes one care for his neighbor? Is it because we are afraid of punishment or because we honor our parents that we are at home on time? Do I love mom because she is lovable or because I am afraid not to?

The problem with fear is that it is a horrific motivator, and it is of only temporal value. Once my grandma learned that lightning would not strike her dead if she ate a shrimp (non-kosher food), she no longer cared about matters of kashrut which had so strictly controlled her life. If we govern by fear, once one overcomes being afraid utter chaos rules. If instead, we think about our relationships in terms of respect and awe, we get a very different result.
Part of what works so well with my mom is that even while we disagree on so many things, the love that we share transcends them. We do not have to win the argument because we cherish “winning” the relationship. So, Torah reminds us “Be Holy, for I God, am holy.” Holiness should be awe inspiring not fear mongering. We need to show up in relationships because we want to grow, not because we are afraid to be outside.

I know, “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” It has to start somewhere. We all face demons. It is time not to cave into to them. Love because love is valuable. Be the example of one who engages in order to grow the world. Teach from your being, the blessing of living for blessings as opposed to avoiding the curses. That is where we can best find the path to holiness. Shabbat Shalom.