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Acharei Mos - Kedoshim: The Holiness of Marshmallows - Discipline and Effectiveness

Though not always read in juxtaposition, there is something truly fascinating and unique about reading Parshios Acharei Mos and Kedoshim together. Parshas Acharei Mos describes the service performed by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and the only day on which the Kohen Gadol is allowed entry into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place on earth. Parshas Kedoshim then begins with the commandment (19:2) “Kedoshim Tihiyu,” and you shall be Holy, and continues to delineate quite a handful of Mitzvos related on some level to this mandate to embody holiness. The Parsha then ends with another Divine ordination for holiness (20:26), “Vi’Hiyisem Li Kedoshim,” and you shall be holy for Me. Holiness is clearly a central theme of these Parshios, and a religious Jewish motif as a whole. But what exactly is holiness, and what does it mean to “be holy”?

In the 1960s, a psychology researcher named Walter Mischel conducted a now-famous experiment with several hundred four and five year old children, one child at a time. In each case, Dr. Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of the child and told him or her that he was going to leave the room for several minutes; if the child waited to eat this marshmallow, he or she would receive another one when Dr. Mischel returned, but if they did not wait and ate the marshmallow before he returned, they would not receive another. Dr. Mischel studied the children who waited to eat their marshmallow, following their lives into adulthood. One of his many findings was that these individuals, who demonstrated delayed gratification in childhood, performed better academically and had lower rates of everything from substance use to obesity. The main takeaway, according to this body of research, was that self-control and discipline predict success, grit, and resilience in life.

If we were to replicate this study in the context of searching for Kedusha (holiness), however, we would not only want to know whether these children were disciplined enough to refrain from eating the marshmallow when the researcher left the room. We would also want to ensure that they thoroughly enjoy that marshmallow when he returns and permits them to eat it. Discipline, and the Torah’s definition of holiness, is reflected in what DBT calls effectiveness, one of the “how” skills of mindfulness. Effectiveness is not about right or wrong - it’s about doing what works and doing what the moment calls for. Holiness is about eating precisely the right marshmallow, at the right time and in the right way.

Parshas Acharei Mos begins by reminding us that God is commanding Aharon (through Moshe) regarding the Yom Kippur Avodah “acharei mos shnei bnei Aharon,” - just after Aharon’s own sons were killed by a Divine fire after entering the Holy of Holies without permission (16:1). Rashi, quoting R’ Elazar ben Azariyah, notes that this is in order to contrast the actions of Aharon and his sons. G-d was, in effect, warning Aharon not to enter the Holy of Holies wantonly or brazenly or at an inappropriate time, as this was his sons’ mistake.

The commentaries lament that Aharon’s sons were true Tzadikim, righteous individuals, and we are likely still feeling the ripple effects of their loss today - when righteous people leave this world, there is irreparable spiritual damage in their wake. At the same time, Nadav and Avihu made a crucial and fatal mistake, acting on their spiritual desire without discipline, and as such, without holiness. Holiness is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and of planning and executing one’s daily life accordingly. The job of the Kohen Gadol, and so, too, all our religious practice as Jews, requires knowing what each moment calls for, and acting in kind.

The Torah definition of Kedusha, as manifested in its laws, is not an ethereal and other-worldly concept, but rather it is about separation and differentiation; holiness means taking a purposeful, disciplined approach to the ordinary, human, and mundane.

Rashi notes (19:2) that the words “Kedoshim Tihiyu” are a command to be separate or “prushim.” Separation can mean many things, and all of them reflect this idea of being disciplined. To separate oneself from others and to abstain from intimacy with specific people and/or at specific times requires tremendous discipline, and the recognition that what is desirable and honorable in one situation is an abomination in another. This is also true in relation to Shabbos, an ordinary day of the week that is separated from the others and made extraordinary through our actions and non-actions, through the way we bring God into the day more than on the other six days of the week. There are even specific Mitzvos we do throughout the week that we are forbidden to do on Shabbos, such as wearing Tefillin or carrying items a great distance, even to perform acts of kindness.

The Mitzvah of Kibbud Av V’eim, honoring our parents, is also found in Parshas Kedoshim. Specifically, God commands us to honor our fathers and fear our mothers. Rashi (19:3) notes that while our instinct might be to honor our mother and fear our father, Kedusha is about the discipline to go against instinct in the service of the Divine. Furthermore, one has to know the limits of honoring one’s parents; Kibud Av V’Eim is juxtaposed with the Mitzvah of Shabbos because if one’s parents pressure him to break Shabbos, one must dishonor them and go against their request for the sake of Shabbos.

This rule can similarly be applied to the laws regarding sexual relations, being thoughtful and intentional about the people with whom we are intimate. It applies to waiting to harvest and eat the fruits of the field and leaving part of our field for the poor despite the instinct to gather as much as we can for our own sustenance. Similarly, the laws of Kashrus, Shatnez, and Kilayim require being disciplined enough to separate, to set limits around our physical and material pursuits.

Holiness is often wrongly synonymized with abstinence, and based on the pesukim in our Parshios, especially Parshas Kedoshim, we can see why this is so. At the same time, however, to equate holiness with abstinence entirely misses the point. Holiness is about recognizing what the moment calls for, and developing the discipline to act effectively in each moment and each circumstance. Understood thusly, holiness is far more complex and challenging than simply denying oneself worldly pleasures, or expressly forbidding a handful of deeds and relationships. Knowing when to engage or disengage, when to mix and intermingle and when to separate and abstain, is a nuanced and challenging art, and requires study, effort, motivation, and discipline.

This week let’s practice the art of effectiveness by aiming to do what is called for in each moment. For some of us, that might mean leaning into some aspects of ourselves or of Jewish life, while for others that might mean titrating down our involvement in certain ideas or activities. And perhaps for all of us, it might mean indulging in some Shabbos party candy this week; marshmallows might be a particularly fitting choice.

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