Posted By The Stash

The names of this week’s double Torah portion translate as “After they die, all are holy”. This has led to a famous Rabbinic inside joke: this quote describes a eulogy because it is essential to say nice things about people after they have passed away. Now, you may find this funny or upsetting, but there is a deep truth to it that is well worth considering.

In his famous book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey asked his readers to imagine what the officiant would say at their funeral. He argued that this visualization exercise would compel people to prioritize what they most valued in life and decide to work towards that goal. Our Rabbis invoked a similar approach when they observed “this world is merely a hallway leading to the banquet hall of the next.” Both Covey and the Sages agree, though their tone is markedly different, on the importance of prioritizing personal goals in this world.

Indeed, the entire system of Judaism’s commandments is a method for self improvement of the spirit and the body. When the commandments are observed intelligently, when they are understood psychologically, they become tools towards self-improvement. Indeed, the 19th century Mussar (Self-Improvement) movement argued that a person who completely understood, practiced, and internalized the commandments was capable of prophecy. They had raised themselves to a level where they could communicate directly with the Divine.

And how will knowledgeable observance of the commandments benefit the rest of us who have no prophetic aspirations? Today’s Torah portion provides a powerful answer: “and you shall make yourselves holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy.” The list of commandments associated with this statement underscores Judaism’s belief that holiness can best be achieved by active engagement in this world. The Torah makes it very clear that proper behaviour in everyday life is the path to holiness. But why? Because Judaism teaches that holiness, bringing the Divine to Earth, is accomplished by teaching others through personal examples. Speaking respectfully to parents, finding a place for religious observance, valuing tradition, living the law rather than lecturing about it, are among the commandments listed in today’s reading. And those who follow them will become exemplars of appropriate life choices to their children, who will hopefully elect to maintain Jewish continuity out of love and respect for how they were raised.

And that brings us full circle. “The law is not in heaven”, proclaims the Torah, “but in your mouth and in your heart, so you will follow it.” Holiness is best found in thoughtful and intelligent Jewish practice that will inspire a new generation to follow. And if parents successfully motivate their children to maintain Jewish continuity through this type of approach, then there is no need to worry about being compelled to say nice things at the funeral. Let us seek to inspire others through our example, so the ripple of holiness we create flows out to many, even those beyond our familiar shores.

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