אַחֲרֵי מוֹת / קְדֹשִׁים
How do we love the unlovely? That is one of the questions Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise explore in Rain Man. Hoffman earned an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, a man with autism whose family had chosen to place him in an institution after he had accidentally harmed Charlie, his younger brother. Because of that, Charlie (played by Cruise) never learns of his brother’s existence until after his father’s death. Charlie is surprised to learn that his father had left most of his fortune to a trust fund that paid for Raymond’s expenses. Determined to obtain a share of the money, Charlie entices Raymond out of the mental institution and takes him on a road trip to his home in California, where he intends to file a lawsuit for custody of his brother. The rest of the movie is a journey on many levels as Charlie begins to see Raymond not as an easily exploitable asset, but as a remarkable human being, and as the loving and lovable brother he has missed all his life.
The audience shares that journey thanks to Hoffman’s masterful performance. By the end of the movie we are still a bit awkward and uncomfortable around Raymond, but we no longer think of him as something less than ourselves. He is brilliant in his own way, far more capable with computations and connections than most of us could ever be. In an odd way he is charming, affectionate, and even adorable. Once we look beyond his peculiar mannerisms and grow accustomed to his unique forms of expression, we begin to see a person of great value. Indeed he has special needs that prevent him from functioning on his own, but we learn from Rain Man that Raymond Babbitt and others like him do have a place in society. One example of this was reported recently in The Times of Israel, in an article explaining how the Israel Defense Forces have recognized the special gift of persons with autism, and have found a way for them to make a valuable contribution to the defense of their nation. Yet even those who are not able to make such a contribution have value. They teach us about ourselves – what it means to be human. We are enriched when we get to know them.
Indeed, they are our neighbors, the very people we are to love as ourselves.
Once a Torah teacher thought he would demonstrate his own self-worth by asking Yeshua to explain whom he considered as his neighbor. He was not expecting the answer. In the famous parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37), Yeshua explained how the very man who would have been despised and shunned in good Jewish company was the very one who showed mercy for the man robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the roadside. If the despised Samaritan could be a good neighbor to this unfortunate Jewish man, why could the Torah teacher not consider the Samaritan as his own neighbor? And if that were true, then the very words of the Torah teacher would come back to haunt him:
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law [Torah]? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29 NASB)
No doubt this man went away much chastened, but hopefully wiser and with a greater regard for all persons.
We know from the other Gospels that this Torah teacher had referred to what Yeshua Himself and other Torah teachers knew to be the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34). Put simply, they are “Love God”, and “Love people”. This is the lesson of the Torah, and indeed the lesson of all Scripture. Yet as with so many things, what can be learned in a moment requires a lifetime to understand and apply. The part about loving God comes from Moses’ farewell speech to Israel, when he summarizes the essence of his ministry among them by teaching them the Shema:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NASB)
In other words, the Word of God should be the single greatest thing on our hearts and minds every waking moment. If it is, then we, our families, and those with whom we fellowship will become more and more like the God we profess to follow as each day passes. That is the process to which the Apostle Paul refers in his exhortation to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). In another letter, Paul provides a few details on how this is to happen, using terms that should remind us of what Moses taught:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9 NASB)
With these instructions we come to understand a little better what it means to love God, but where do we find the instructions about loving our neighbor? That comes from the heart of the Torah, the part of Leviticus that gives all the details about how we are to act toward one another. The Torah portions Achrei Mot (After the Death) and Kedoshim (Holy Ones) (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) pick up immediately after the instructions on leprosy and other things that diminish the holiness God places on His people. YHVH opens these portions with instructions on how to observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Thus, after learning what makes us unclean, or unfit to enter the Lord’s Presence, we learn the great cost in blood required to cleanse us so we can have fellowship with Him. Of course, the ultimate Atonement is Messiah Yeshua, the One Who takes away our sin. The blood of the bulls and goats made atonement for the priests and the people, pointing to the atonement (or propitiation) Messiah makes for the entire world (Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 2:17; I John 2:1-2, 4:10).
But after we are made holy and acceptable to God, how are we to act? That is the subject of the rest of these Torah portions. The points they cover are:
- Instructions on bringing sacrificial offerings (e.g., offer sacrifices only at the Tabernacle, and only to YHVH). (Leviticus 17:1-9)
- Do not eat blood. The life is in the blood and it belongs to the Lord. Do not eat any animal that dies of itself or is torn by beasts. (Leviticus 17:10-16)
- Instructions on sexual purity. Specific definitions of improper sexual relations, and explicit instruction not to offer children as human sacrifices. (Leviticus 18:1-30, 20:1-27)
- Admonition to be holy as the Lord God is holy, Reverence parents, keep the Lord’s Sabbaths, and refrain from making any idols. (Leviticus 19:1-4)
- Instructions on how to bring a peace offering. (Leviticus 19:5-8)
- Instructions on proper business and social conduct. Leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor; do not steal, cheat, lie, or swear falsely by the Lord’s Name; deal honestly with neighbors; pay hired workers their wages on time; treat the deaf and blind kindly; be fair and impartial in justice; avoid unkind thoughts (hate) of our brethren; do not seek vengeance or bear a grudge. In other words, love our neighbors as ourselves. (Leviticus 19:9-18)
- Admonition and instructions on keeping the Lord’s statutes. Avoid mixing unequal things, such as breeding two kinds of livestock, sowing fields with two kinds of seed, wearing garments of mixed material, unequal weights and measures, and having sex with another man’s maidservant. Upon entering the Promised Land, do not eat the fruit of trees until the fifth year, allowing them to mature for three years, and offering the fruit of the fourth year as a holy praise offering to the Lord. Do not engage in divination, soothsaying, spiritism, or cultic practices for the dead (including tattoos, shaving the head, and cutting the flesh). Do not sell a daughter as a prostitute. Honor the aged. Do no wrong to the stranger, but love him as one of our own. Revere the Lord, keep His Sabbaths, and revere His sanctuary. (Leviticus 19:19-33; 20:27)
It may be a surprise to learn that when the great Council of Jerusalem met to discuss how to treat the Gentiles coming to faith in Yeshua, the decision of the apostles and elders was based on these very Torah instructions. Consider the discourse of the Apostle James in concluding the deliberation of the Council:
After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. [Amos 9:11-12] Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols [Leviticus 17:1-9] and from fornication [Leviticus 18:1-30, 20:1-27] and from what is strangled and from blood [Leviticus 17:10-16]. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:13-21 NASB)
In other words, if the Gentiles truly are followers of Yeshua, seeking to live according to His example, they will exhibit these specific traits as evidence of their changed lives. They will need help maturing in their faith, however, and for that they will need to study the Scriptures, which means studying Torah so they could understand the details about how to fulfill the Law of loving God and loving others. Moreover, they would learn from the Prophets what happened when God’s people departed from these instructions. And this brings us to an interesting connection: Yeshua’s comments to the Torah teacher and these deliberations by the apostles are linked to the Haftorah portions for these Torah readings.
Jewish sources indicate that the Haftorah readings associated with each Torah portion were in existence as early as the time of the Maccabees, and certainly by the First Century CE. The earliest reference to the reading of the Haftorah is in Acts 13:
Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem. But going on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, “Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” (Acts 13:13-15 NASB, emphasis added)
From this we conclude that Yeshua and the apostles understood that the Haftorah readings from corresponding to Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are Ezekiel 20:2-20, 22:1-19, and Amos 9:7-15. Thus, when Yeshua commended the Torah teacher, saying, ““You have answered correctly; do this and you will live,” it was no coincidence that He was referring to Ezekiel 20, in which the Lord speaks judgment against Israel, and to Leviticus 18, the original context of these words:
I gave them My statutes and informed them of My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live. Also I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes and they rejected My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I resolved to pour out My wrath on them in the wilderness, to annihilate them. (Ezekiel 20:11-14 NASB, emphasis added)
So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:5 NASB)
Nehemiah and Paul, as well as Ezekiel in another place, reference Leviticus 18:5 (Nehemiah 9:29; Ezekiel 18:9; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12). All of them make the point that God has established standards by which He wants His people to conduct themselves. In other words, God’s people are supposed to live according to these commandments, and when they do so they will receive the blessings of abundant life.
This understanding helps us see why James made reference to Amos 9, a very important prophecy about the judgment and restoration of all Israel:
“Are you not as the sons of Ethiopia to Me, O sons of Israel?” declares the Lord. “Have I not brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; nevertheless, I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob,” declares the Lord. “For behold, I am commanding, and I will shake the house of Israel among all nations as grain is shaken in a sieve, but not a kernel will fall to the ground. All the sinners of My people will die by the sword, those who say, ‘The calamity will not overtake or confront us.’ In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name,” declares the Lord who does this. “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When the plowman will overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows seed when the mountains will drip sweet wine and all the hills will be dissolved. Also I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them; they will also plant vineyards and drink their wine, and make gardens and eat their fruit. I will also plant them on their land, and they will not again be rooted out from their land which I have given them,” says the Lord your God. (Amos 9:7-15 NASB, emphasis added)
The Scripture does not say why Yeshua’s brother James refers to Amos in the context of how to educate non-Jewish believers new to faith in Yeshua, so we must use the brains God gave us to figure it out. James indicates that these new believers should be acquainted with the basic requirements of fellowship with the brethren as stated in Leviticus 17, 18, 19, and 20. His linkage of this instruction with Amos 9 indicates his understanding that these formerly Gentile brethren are part of the fulfillment of God’s restoration of Israel, and as newly-adopted Israelites they should be instructed in the standards of righteousness and holiness that God established from the beginning.
The implications of this understanding are enormous, but let us bring it down to the most basic level. What Yeshua, James, Paul, Ezekiel, and Moses are explaining to us are the ways we are to live if we want to please the God Who made and redeemed us. We study Torah and the rest of Scripture to learn His instructions, and we discuss this with others so that we can help each other understand and live out these standards. That is how we mature as individuals and as a community of believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Together we probe the deeper levels of understanding in the living Word of God so that we go deeper into Him, abiding in Him just as Messiah commanded us (John 15:1-11).
Here is one example of that deeper meaning. In Kedoshim we learn this:
You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:14 NASB)
That seems straightforward: be nice to people who cannot hear or who cannot see. Do not vex them, or cause them to appear ridiculous, or make them err in some way that leads to their harm. If we do such a thing, we are doing the exact opposite of reverencing the Lord our God. In fact, we could say that by causing offense to the deaf and the blind, we cause offense to Holy God Himself.
But is that all there is to this commandment? What if there is something more about deafness and blindness than what we read on the surface? What if someone is in another room, in a place where they cannot hear what we say about them? Would they not therefore be deaf, in a sense? They could not hear us, nor could they understand, so if we say something unkind about them they will never know. Or what if this person is in our presence and can hear the sounds that come out of our mouths, but cannot understand our words? Perhaps they are a foreigner who does not speak our language, or perhaps their intellectual development is impaired so that they cannot comprehend language in the same way we do. Are they not deaf to us? And if so, what happens if we ridicule them to their face, making a joke at their expense? How, then, do they feel when everyone around them is laughing, and they cannot figure out why?
And what of the blind? Even if a person’s eyes are perfectly normal, what if their ability to understand something is limited? As a boy I heard a piercing example of this. My pastor, Dr. Edgar M. Arendall, told this story in a sermon one Sunday morning. I believe it was something he witnessed, and perhaps something in which he had participated, much to his regret. He said that once there was a young man of limited intelligence who had the misfortune of finding one of the tires on his truck was flat. He was distressed about what to do, but other young men he knew convinced him the tire was only flat on the bottom, and therefore he could drive his truck without any worries. He did so, and before long he had ruined the rim of his wheel, causing far worse and far more expensive damage than a flat tire.
This simple young man was blind to the cruel joke played by his “friends”. And sadly, every day simple people like him are taken in because of their blindness to certain things. Yet blindness is not a condition limited to the less intelligent among us. Everyone has a “blind spot”, and even the most brilliant person can have difficulty understanding something. It may be a math problem, assembly of a piece of furniture, a recipe, or even a seemingly straightforward truth from the Scripture. Whatever it is, those who understand have the choice of treating those who don’t either with love, or with contempt. Both choices are equalizers: it matters not whether the individual in question is a brilliant scientist, or a child with Down’s Syndrome, a response in love puts them on the plane of human beings created in the image of God Himself, while contempt makes them less than human and unworthy even of the sneer we cast at them. The question for us is this: which reaction is in imitation of the Savior we profess to follow? It should not require a miracle to know the answer.
And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Luke 7:22-23 NASB)
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 NASB)