“And they drew too close, and they died.” — Leviticus 16:1
This week’s Torah portion opens by recounting the horrible events outlined earlier in the Torah, when Aaron’s two sons try to gain physical access to God by offering a prohibited sacrifice. No sooner do they offer this sacrifice than God consumes them in a fiery rage. Through these tragic deaths, God teaches a lesson: Touching the Divine realm is powerful and dangerous… best to keep a respectful distance.
Of course, at this time when we are required to remain apart from one another for the sake of our health and safety, these words about drawing too close take on a very different meaning. Physical contact is dangerous right now; we can look, but we can’t touch. Though political debates about when to emerge from our quarantine and resume our normal conduct abound, it will be a long time until we re-engage in physical touch with the comfort and ease that we did only a short time ago.
So what do we do when we can’t draw near to other humans and can’t get too close to God?
This week, we reach the very center of the Torah — both physically and spiritually. If we were to open the entire scroll, we would find ourselves exactly halfway between the beginning of the Torah, which tells of the creation of the world, and the end, where we find the Israelites preparing to enter the Holy Land.
What we find at the epicenter of the Torah is the fundamental lesson of what it means to be a Jew. This set of commandments is often referred to as the Holiness Code. It teaches:
“You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God.”
“You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.”
“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Eternal.”
“Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Eternal.”
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Eternal.”
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love your neighbor as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.”
The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, page 31a) tells a famous story of a man who comes to convert to Judaism. He says to the great Rabbi Hillel: “I will convert if you are able to teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel accepts the challenge, and without missing a beat, he responds with the words from this week’s Torah portion: “Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the entire Torah and the rest is its interpretation. Now, go and study!” Through this story, the Talmud teaches us that the essence of all of Judaism is to be kind to our fellow human beings.
As humans, we are not able to access God physically. Even if it were possible, we learn from the Torah that coming too close to God is dangerous business. And right now, we are likewise not able to access other humans. But at the center of our Torah, we learn the fundamental principles that guide us: take care of those in need; be honest and forthcoming with others, don’t take advantage of them; love your neighbor; love yourself.
When our usual anchors are gone, these eternal values remain. And perhaps by living out what is written in this Holiness Code, we can draw nearer to our neighbors and to God, even when we can’t get too close.