Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

"You shall observe ... My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them" Leviticus 18:5


Growing up in Brooklyn, my home was situated a mere two roads from the HQ of the Jewish volunteer ambulance corps Hatzalah. It was common on Shabbat to see religious Jews whizzing by in their cars, ambulances or motorbikes with sirens blaring and lights flashing, on their way to respond to a distress call. As the above verse clearly states, the purpose of our commandments is to live by them; almost all halachic restrictions can be waived in the perpetuation of life or limb.

Being the spiritual leader of my community, I often find myself discussing ideas of Jewish faith with those investigating Judaism for the first time. "Is Judaism really an ethical religion?" or "Why would any God care about turning on or off a light switch?" are common questions and the idea that Judaism gives supreme value to human life is a very important introduction to our worldview. But equally important is an extrapolation from this idea.

According to the Chasidic masters, the same verse which commands us to put our lives before commandments can be read differently. The mitzvot were given for a purpose - to elevate our existence. To live by them is literal. When we perform mitzvot, we become more alive through their practice. The verse is not just telling us not to die, but rather that we must live. We are commanded through our mitzvot to have a life of fulfilment and accomplishment in which each ordinance gives more meaning and purpose. For our rabbis, Judaism goes beyond the sanctity of life and transcends into the sanctity of living.

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