Each Sabbath is given a name, and that name is derived from a word or phrase contained in the opening verse of the week’s Torah portion. So for instance, Shabbat Acharei Mot takes its name from the opening line of Leviticus 16 - acharei mot sh’nai benai aharon - After the death of the two sons of Aaron.
If you take the name of this week’s portion, Emor (Speak) and string it together with the names of the two preceding portions Acharei Mot (After the death) and Kedoshim (Holiness) you get a Hebrew phrase and an insightful Rabbinic aphorism: acharei mot kedoshim emor. Roughly translated: After his/her death we call the person holy.
You might think this is the Rabbinic equivalent of the Latin injunction ‘Speak not ill of the dead.’ On the contrary, more often than not the phrase has an ironic connotation, as when a rabbi will deliver a eulogy describing and attributing virtues to the departed that are unrecognizable to most of those present at the funeral. Acharei mot kedoshim emor. Or as my mother used to say, “I better go look in the casket to see who is in there.” The phrase is a caution not to engage in such extreme revisionist biography.
When a life’s journey comes to an end, the chevrah kaddishah ( the traditional burial society) is tasked to take reverential care of the physical remains of the deceased. The word chevrah kadishah literally means the ‘holy society’, that is to say the group is tasked to perform the holy rites of preparing the body for burial.
Acharei mot kedoshim emor – to speak holiness of the dead on the other hand is to recognize the person in the fullness of his or her humanity, in the truthful remembrance of all that was good and perhaps not-so-good, what was done and left undone, the achievements and the reversals, the successes and stumbles. The phrase is a caution not to white-wash or spin things in order to paint the portrait of saint. To expect or attribute perfection to less than perfect people is perfectly ridiculous at any time but especially at that moment of life called death.
That is not to say that the funeral is the time to work out all the unfinished business in a relationship. Happily the phrase also points to a very human tendency to remember our departed – as the prayerbook puts it - “with faults forgiven and virtues grown large.” Acharei mot kedoshim emor testifies not only to the universal imperfection of humanity but also to humanity’s capacity to both remember and forget. Taken together, these two qualities allow us to put aside imperfection and appreciate one another for the best that we manage to achieve in a lifetime
But why wait until the end to do that? I like to think that acharei mot kedoshim emor is also a reminder to appreciate one another in the present moment - to see in partial achievement and less than perfect performance that which is still good and worthy of compliment. Such a perspective is especially helpful with respect to those to whom we are bound by the closest of familial ties.
In last week’s portion we read v’ahavtah l’reachah kamochah, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The phrase is better translated as “act lovingly to your neighbor,” and there is no more loving gesture than to try to see the best in the others with whom we share our life.