The double portion, Acharey-Mot K’doshim, includes at its heart, arguably, the most important verses in the Torah. Known, appropriately as the ‘Holiness Code’, because it is predicated on the understanding that the congregation of Israel shall ‘be holy’ because the Eternal One ‘is holy’, parashat K’doshim teaches us what ‘holiness’ means: acting compassionately and justly towards those who are vulnerable and marginal in society – in particular, ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’ – behaving ethically in our business dealings, loving both our neighbour and also the stranger in our midst (Leviticus 19)
If we turn to the Haftarah connected with K’doshim – Amos 9:7-15, we are reminded that, actually, the ‘Holiness Code’ is all about the theory of ethical behaviour; in practice, our ancestors failed, again and again to ‘be holy’ – which is why Amos, proclaimed in the name of the Eternal One that ‘the eyes of the Eternal God are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth’ (9:8a). From the perspective of the Eternal One, the kingdom of Israel is but a sukkah, a temporary abode (:11), and, ultimately, the Creator of all the earth, will not give Israel special preference: ‘Are you not to Me, O people of Israel, like the Ethiopians? – says the Eternal One. Did not I bring op Israel out of Egypt, and the Philistines from Crete, and the Arameans from Kir?’ (9:7).
Amos lived in the 8th century BCE and was a Judean shepherd and tree farmer who moved to Israel, where he railed against corruption and injustice. In 722 BCE the Assyrians conquered Israel and scattered its inhabitants – so that all that remained were the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin in neighbouring Judah. Like Isaiah, Amos shows us that the people Israel, past and present, is not intrinsically holy – sacred, set apart – rather the people only becomes holy by acting as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19: 6) – by engaging in right conduct; and if we don’t, we will suffer the consequences.
And so, the words of Amos teach us that the Haftarah serves not only to ‘conclude’ the sacred reading on Shabbat and the festivals, but also, frequently, to remind us that being a Jew is about how we behave towards others, and that the theory – all those rules and laws we find in the Torah – is meaningless if it is not translated into practice. When I was a Marxist (in my youth!), I was rather taken by the notion of praxis – the unity of theory and practice – a concept used by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Of course, when it comes to our everyday Jewish lives in the world, it may be rather idealistic to think that we can achieve such a unity, but we can try… and maybe reading the Haftarah each week is a good way of keeping us on our toes!