Acharei Mos/Kedoshim – Black Like Us

The haftarah for Acharei Mos, which will be read this week for the double parsha of Acharei Mos/Kedoshim, is from Amos (9:7), where Hashem extols the Jewish people with the famous and famously strange words: “Behold, you are like the children of Kush to Me.”

Kush is identified as the African kingdom of Nubia (roughly modern-day Sudan/ Ethiopia), and the Gemara (Moed Katan, 16b), commenting on the pasuk from Amos, says: “Just as a Kushite differs [from others] in [the color of] his skin, so are the Jewish people different in their actions.”

The Chasam Sofer (who apparently had “the righteous” in place of “the Jewish people” in that Gemara) interprets that Talmudic comment in an interesting and poignant way:

“One Jew may excel in Torah-study; another, in avodah [prayer]; another, in acts of kindness to others; this one in one particular mitzvah, that one in another.  Nevertheless, while they all differ from each other in their actions, they all have the same intention: to serve Hashem with their entire hearts.

“Behold the Kushite.  Inside, his organs, his blood and his appearance are all the same as other people’s. Only in the superficiality of his skin does he differ. This is the meaning of ‘[different] in his skin,’ [meaning] only in his skin.  Likewise, the righteous are different [from one another] only ‘in their actions’; their inner conviction and intention, though, are [the same], aimed at serving Hashem in a good way.”

That people of different skin colors are only superficially different from one another is accepted as a truism by the Chasam Sofer. His point is that in all our diversity of vocations, fields and foci, we can be entirely equal servants of Hashem.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 22a) speaks of a pair of comedians, who used their humor to cheer up the depressed and defuse disputes.

One wonders if the parents of those meritorious men felt disappointed at their sons’ choices of professions.  Or whether they realized that there are, in the end, many paths that can lead to the World-to-Come.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

My most recent Ami column, “Regrets, I’ve Had a Few,” can be read here.

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