Living within the world, yet apart from it: It's not an easy task. Politics, for instance, abounds with many examples of people who embarked on missions of change, only to become what they had originally crusaded against.
But according to Judaism, such an outlook on life is necessary to both perfect the world and reach ever-higher spiritual heights.
This week's double Torah portion successively lays out the blueprint for priestly service during the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur; restricts sacrificial activities to only the Tabernacle; lists more than a dozen forbidden relationships; forbids the idol-worship known as molech; strengthens the commandment of honoring parents; outlines several agricultural laws designed to provide food for the poor; lays a foundation for civil justice; and prohibits certain behaviors of the non-Jewish nations.
It's a lot to digest. Thankfully, tradition provides a thematic foundation in the portion names, taken from their beginning words.
Setting the stage, so to speak, for all of the laws that follow is Aharei Mot, which literally means "after the death." The entire first verse relates that Moses was commanded to transmit many of these statutes "after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord."
When dealing with the subject — introduced during the portion of Shemini — of the death of Nadab and Abihu, several commentaries assert that when they offered "strange fire" in the Tabernacle, what really happened was that their souls spontaneously left their bodies. Drawn by an intense love of the Almighty, the sons' bodies couldn't contain their spiritual counterparts and expired.
Chasidic thought distinguishes between the sons' spiritual desires, which were entirely praiseworthy, and their failure to keep their feet firmly planted down below. Although they were wrong to conclude that the only way to approach Godliness was to flee the physical realm, they were right to draw close to the Divine.
The title of this week's second Torah portion backs up this view. The first of its decrees is to be kedoshim, "to be holy," because "I, the Lord your God, am holy."
In Hebrew, the word for holiness signifies separateness. We make kiddush to acknowledge the separation between the week and Shabbat; and we make something holy by setting it aside for a higher purpose. Generally, we're supposed to emulate the Almighty, Maimonides writes in his legal code. God is merciful; therefore, we should be merciful. God is "slow to anger" and "abundant in kindness;" we should be the same.
But the Holy One exists on a plane far removed from physical reality. Likewise, we should recognize that our purpose in the world transcends physical limitations. The issue is how to live a holy life without becoming like Nadab and Abihu.
Torah provides the answer. Consider that an apple can be used for a mundane purpose, to satisfy bodily hunger. Or it can be used to provide the energy to do a mitzvah. A job can provide money to acquire possessions, or it can be used to better others' lives.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that people find themselves in a specific location for a reason. Their task is to pursue their spiritual talents in order to extract holiness from their physical surroundings, and thereby elevate themselves, as well as the world around them.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is editor of Chabad.org/news. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.