Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

Words Matter
Rabbi Robin Foonberg, ’13


We often teach our children the famous story of Yettl and the feathers.  Yettl was accused of gossiping in her community.  The Rabbi advised her to take a feather pillow and let all the feathers out in the field.  Yettl did so and then the Rabbi told her to go back to the field to collect all the feathers.  Yettl exclaimed, “Rabbi, that is impossible!  The feathers have blown away in the wind and I could never get them all back again.”  The wise Rabbi taught, “It is the same with your words.  Once you speak them, you can never take them back.”

If this is true for gossiping and the spoken word, how much more so for words that are written and published.  Like the spoken word, we cannot take back what is written.  Especially in our time, with the internet allowing us to Google so many sources.  Once a quote is in print, it can be immediately recalled or can be retrieved from the archives.  It simply never goes away. 

Our tradition thrives on the written word.  Words ancient and wise from centuries ago, line our book shelves and now can be accessed on websites like in seconds.  We study them, teach them, and consider them holy. 

However, in Leviticus, chapter 18, we read difficult and challenging passages about sexual relationships.  We apologetically state that we must read the text in its historic context, but we all know that it is difficult to separate the words of wisdom of the Torah as a whole from the frustrating and damaging words written in this chapter.  What we understand today when we read Leviticus 18 is that some people have power in sexual relationships and that some relationships are simply forbidden.

Judith Plaskow, in her essay in the URJ Women’s Commentary on the Torah suggests that we use this chapter “as a starting point for raising hard questions about our own sexual values.”  I suggest that coupled with that discussion, we explore the words of the following chapter, Leviticus 19.  S. Tamar Kamionkowski writes, “Leviticus 19 offers a fundamentally new vision of holiness, one that has the potential to bring women and other disenfranchised populations within Israel into the realm of holiness.” (URJ Women’s Commentary, p. 701)

The call to holiness in chapter 19 allows us to confront Leviticus 18 in the form of protest.  This is not Judaism as we understand it.  We must not be afraid to admit that in this case, the Torah is wrong, but that doesn’t negate the whole book.  We have the words of Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, to guide us.  Let the Torah’s wise words shine through and let us not hesitate to call out those passages that speak hatred and denigrate others.

Words matter.   Whether we are speaking or writing, among friends or from the pulpit, on our blogs, or on Facebook, may we all choose words of holiness. 

“You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.”

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