Monday, May 8, 2017

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 2017 The Many Paths of Kedusha in our Lives

Please note that this D'var Torah (shared thinking) was presented at this past weekend's Eshel Fifth Annual Parents'Retreat. Eshel is a very important community to our family as the Orthodox LGBTQ Organization that works to create and encourage Orthodox Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming to all of our Jewish community members, wherever they are on the continuum of their gender and/or sexuality identity. For more information on this and other writings of this type, please contact me at

The theme of this Eshel Parents’ Retreat is “Happy, Healthy and Holy.” We all pray, hope and want our children and those we love to be happy, healthy and whole as well as holy (Kadosh).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that every Jew, or every “yid” is Kadosh and does so many Mitzvot every day on their continuing path to higher levels of Kedusha.

In this week’s Parsha we read as follows:

You shall be Kadosh because I the Lord your G-d am Kadosh.

KADOSH/KEDUSHA – this is such an important and central word and concept to us as Jews. Clearly, it is difficult to translate accurately, even more so to encapsulate in its entirety and magnitude. As we read about the system of laws and practices that so defines us as a people and individually as members of this collective, this directive is repeated in various formulations with stark regularity. We attach the highest levels of sanctification, spirituality and the very core of our identity to these regulations as well as their foundational ethical components in connecting with our past in a visceral, as well as intellectual and practical manner. Rashi teaches that most fundamental teachings of the Torah depend on this part of the text; so much so that it was always and often taught in public assemblies.

This week’s double Parsha (Torah reading) is included in Chapters 17 – 27 of VaYikra which are indeed about the practices and intentional actions of our lives that define us as those commanded to be Kedoshim; and are dubbed The Holiness Code by Biblical scholars, including those in the secular world. These chapters are marked by a concern for holy living on the part of the people rather than a concern with sacrificial systems or ritual purity, as are the first sixteen chapters of the book. The standard of living to which the Holiness Code calls the B’nai Yisrael is to be exemplified in all arenas of life--economic, social, personal, familial, and in relation to each other. The refrain that marks these chapters -- "I am the LORD" or "I am the LORD your God." occurs only two times in Leviticus 1-16, but forty-seven times in chapters 17-26, with the majority in our reading today. We are to be KADOSH because the Lord our God is KADOSH. This sense of and identity with Kedusha is to mirror God's and these chapters provide us with a myriad of ways in which we do this.

One cannot escape noticing that this code of Ethical Behavior or those actions that bring Kedusha into our lives is juxtaposed with the narrative of our leaders, Aaron’s very sons, the Kohanim, who did not follow the prescribed manual of actions but rather offered their own strange fire; and Aaron’s need to use both his personal experience and his public office to remind the B’nai Yisrael of how we are to be and what should motivate our actions – our aspirations to be Kedoshim. Within this narrative we read about atonement, what to do to set straight what has gone off center when we are NOT ONE with G-d. It is immediately after learning about this process of re-centering ourselves that we are confronted with so many different ways to remain centered, or the many paths of Kedusha that are accessible to us in our daily lives – that is to ALL of us, regardless of status (we are not all Kohanim, for example, nor are we Nazirim with their situational designation of Kedusha), whether we are men or women, whether we observe the places and times so identified with Kedusha, and regardless of our means.

Moshe Safdie is an Israeli architect who is known world-wide for his work on a variety of ventures, including several places of worship for Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith communities as well as the 2005 design for Yad v’ Shem and the Mamilla Mall in Yerushalayim with its signature blend of historical footprint and contemporary rhythm of life. Safdie explains that no matter where in the world he has worked, “ our designs are specific to place and culture – they are inspired by and woven into the historic, cultural and social fabric of their site.” When asked by Dov Elbaum in an interview on Israeli television what קדושה means to him, he explained that he feels that sanctity is created by the people who infuse the spaces he creates with meaning through their actions and the purposeful involvements of their lives. Safdie explains how in this way our Beit HaMikdash and practices from long ago and the memory we have of these chapters of our collective lives can translate into many other meaningful spaces through the merit of the actions of those who maintain the community and its institutions. Here Kedusha happens where we are and through what we do.

A very different definition of Kedusha is suggested in speaking of the “Sanctity of Place,” as taught by Prof. Israel Knohl:

The biblical word “kadosh” (holy) denotes something distinct and lofty. According to the Bible, kedusha[1] (holiness or sanctity) stems from God, who is sanctified and distinct from the created world. Anything closely connected to God receives its sanctity, kedusha, from the divine kedusha. The sanctity of a place derives from the presence of God there. Thus, when God appears to Moses at the burning bush, that ground automatically becomes sanctified (Exod. 3:5). Once God’s presence leaves that place, it loses its sanctified status.

Do we have conflicting notions here or is there something else to consider? What do we as Jews bring to the space in which we are to amplify the sense of Kedusha?

Most, if not all of us are all so familiar with the pivotal words of VaYikra 19:18 -- כמוך לרעך תואהב -- And you shall show love to YOUR RE’AH as you would for/to yourself -- and its centrality for such notable teachers as Hillel and Rabbi Akiba, as well as what some may perceive as its overuse as the distillation of all that is Torah which some of us may feel minimizes this sense of Kedusha as well as its own intrinsic meaning. Professor Menachem Hershman, a well-known teacher of Talmud and Jewish texts in Israel teaches that this concept is truly, as Hillel teaches “a great precept/rule in the Torah.” Prof. Hershman teaches that it is LOVE, this AHAVAH, that should define and be the prism through which all of our actions come; and by acting out of this love, we will act intentionally and carefully, showing care to others in so many actions and that it is THIS that will bring Kedusha to all of the PLACES in which we find ourselves through the activation of our initiatives.

So let’s look a bit more carefully for context. We read verses 17 and verse 18 as follows, immediately after being told to not stand idly by while our רע is in harm’s way:

17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor (who wrongs you), and not bear sin because of him. 18 Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

The development of these verses is quite specific. Do not bear hatred towards those closest to you --- hold your relative accountable and do not embarrass him in public; do not hold a grudge or take revenge against those with whom you share a destiny, and then show love to the other – ךרעל -- as you would do for yourself.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches as follows (5767) regarding the very specific and intentional wording of these two verses:

The inner logic of these verses in our sedra is therefore this: “Love your neighbor [?] as yourself. But not all neighbors [or even brothers!]are loveable. There are those who, out of envy or malice, have done you harm. I do not therefore command you to live as if you were angels, without any of the emotions natural to human beings. I do however forbid you to hate. That is why, when someone does you wrong, you must confront the wrongdoer. You must tell him of your feelings of hurt and distress. It may be that you completely misunderstood his intentions. Or it may be that he genuinely meant to do you harm, but now, faced with the reality of the injury he has done you, he may sincerely repent of what he did. If, however, you fail to talk it through, there is a real possibility that you will bear a grudge and in the fullness of time, come to take revenge ...”

What is so impressive about the Torah is that it both articulates the highest of high ideals, and at the same time speaks to us as human beings. If we were angels it would be easy to love one another. But we are not. An ethic that commands us to love our enemies, without any hint as to how we are to achieve this, is simply unlivable. Instead, the Torah sets out a realistic program. By being honest with one another, talking things through, we may be able to achieve reconciliation – not always, to be sure, but often. How much distress and even bloodshed might be spared if humanity heeded this simple command.

This means that one is to ‘love your friend [ רע] as yourself.’ We know that there are in fact many words in Hebrew for indicating relationality .. here are a few relevant to our discussion at hand: גרך -חבר -רע -עמיתך- אח Why is the word רע used in this instance? Why not חבר, for example? Why not גר or אח? חבר or אח indicate someone who is similar to you; chaver shares a root with the word lechaber -chibur (to join/connect) and chabura (a gathering) - a chaver is someone who is thus easy to befriend because he is just like you, maybe even more so than say an אח – a familial relationship (brother). Note for example, the use of the word חבר as such, in Shoftim 20:11:

חֲבֵרִים אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ הָעִיר אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ כָּל וַיֵּאָסֵף And all of Israel came together to the city as one man joined together with each other

Here, all the nation of Israel gathered together in a shared mission against the force of Giv’eah. Here they were JOINED TOGETHER in a sense of shared purpose; this is NOT the sense of our commandment here.

A re’a is someone who may indeed be quite different from you, but perhaps not as much as a גר (often translated as stranger) – maybe in ways that one does not understand nor accept; he or she might have different goals, different viewpoints, different identity points or a different personality. A re’a is not familially or nationally connected to you. The use of re’a is particularly telling; the Torah is commanding us to love davka someone who is different and not as compatible as you might like. Its easy to agree with those who agree with us; not so much with those who do not. And here is a wonderful opportunity to show and be Kedusha personified in facilitating such a relationship.

Rambam, teaches in Hilchot De’ot 6:3 that ‘it is a mitzvah [incumbent] upon each person to love each and every Jew, as well as others according to some of our teachers, like himself. He extends this to teach that we should show the same empathy towards others we would hope they would exhibit towards us. By contrast, Sforno, Ramban, the Chizkuni and many others teach that the mitzvah is not intended to instruct us to have the same love for others as you do for yourself; this is impossible for the most basic of reasons. Would HaShem command that which is impossible? So what exactly does the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha obligate us to do? We are to want good things to happen to other people just like we would want good things to happen to ourselves. Just as Bruria taught her husband Rabbi Meir to not wish for the destruction of wicked people but rather to pray that they would repent and be offered atonement so that wickedness would be destroyed but not individuals. When we carefully look at the passuk itself, we are asked by some of our teachers to note that it does not say love your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta es re’acha kamocha), but rather, show love to your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha), by wanting good things to happen to them. This is the meaning of Hillel the Elder’s teaching to “not do to others what is hateful to you, i.e. what others would do to you.”

If we use this as our guiding principle in bringing Kedusha into our world and showing this concern for others, we see why Perek Yud-Tet (Chapter 19 of VaYikra – Leviticus) is at the center of the Holiness Code and according to some of our traditions, the very text of the Torah itself. Here we see so many actions, reminding us that in undertaking these initiatives including honesty and transparency in all business dealings, interacting with those in our communities with various needs and deficits such as visual or hearing impairments, sharing our crop with others, not injuring others by use of words, not bearing grudges, judging fairly, and so much else, we enact what Rabbi Harold Kushner states when he says that “Human beings and their actions are G-d’s language.” This fulfills the notion oft repeated in the Gemara (e.g. Sukkah, Yoma, Sotah) that when one does a single Mitzvah intentionally it is credited to him as if he or she has observed the entire Torah. There are so many ways to achieve this sense of connectedness, of Kedusha.

According to the Rambam, how are you supposed to go about fulfilling the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha; is it enough to meditate and think about it, i.e. to love in your heart but not through actions? What if this intentional action does not come naturally? The key is that such attitudes, feelings or emotions will hopefully come about as the result of actions one does, as we are carefully taught in the Sefer Hachinuch. It is only when these feelings, attitudes, etc. are clothed and expressed in the form of actions that they are internalized and take root within an individual. It is in this way that one fully acquires the ability to love others as one loves oneself; one does actions that show love to others. And this is what Hillel was saying when he instructed the potential convert ‘what is hateful to you do not do to your friend;’ he did not merely say ‘love others as you love yourself,’ because he was teaching this potential convert how to go about fulfilling this mitzvah - by wrapping emotions in action to make them real. And here is where we achieve Kedusha, or intentional and unique wholeness.

We learn in Sotah 14a, for example, that indeed we bring G-d into the world by following the sanctified actions of intentionality that G-d does, such as clothing those who need clothing, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and burying the dead. Ibn Ezra, among others, points out that the refrain of Ani HaShem and its constant presence in our text is alluding to the concept that we reflect HaShem in this world; and unity amongst Bnei Yisrael allows HaShem’s Shechinah to reside in this world. Similarly, Rashi and others teach that it was only when we put individual differences aside and we were ‘like one man with one heart and one voice ’that HaShem gave us Torah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler teaches that this is the goal for us to work towards yet again – finding our shared sense of mission and humanity that unites us all and here we will find AHAVA and KEDUSHA.

Further, we do not stop with the one in our midst with whom we disagree, but also embrace those who come into our communities from the outside, as we are instructed in verses 33 – 34:

33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Here we see the one Mitzvah that appears more than any other in our Torah; asking us to extend ourselves even further, not just to love the one with whom we share purpose as in Yehoshua; or the one who is tied to our destiny by heritage as in our text; but now we are asked to accept and NOT turn away the stranger precisely because that happened to us and we know what it feels like.

Returning to verse 19:16 -- Do not have a gossiper in your community; do not stand by the blood of your re’ah, we are again reminded that the saving of life is above all, even to the point of setting aside other Mitzvot when needed. This valuing of human life is what should motivate us to feel the love we are told to feel and cloak that love in actions that truly make a difference, bringing Kedusha to our world. Further, we see that our very use of language itself can be a vehicle to save or destroy life. Let us all commit ourselves to using our language, our actions, and the many paths to Kedusha at our disposal purposefully and in so doing follow the central dictate of:

You shall be קדושים because I the Lord your G-d am קדוש

Finally, let us commit ourselves to acknowledging the many ways our children are indeed Kadoshim in so many aspects of their lives and the many Mitzvot(intentional actions) they do on their path to achieving this shared goal!

Shabbat Shalom.

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