Friday, April 25, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Kedoshim

Kedoshim: Two Types of Kedusha

Parashat Kedoshim represents the transition from the first half of Vayikra to the second. The first half of Vayikra focuses solely on the Temple, its holiness, and the sacrifices. This theme continues with the parshiyot devoted to the various ritual impurities that prevent a person's access to the Temple and its sacrifices. And, as we learned in parashat Acharei Mot, it is only the holiest of individuals, the High Priest, who can enter the intense locus of kedusha, the Holy of Holies, and then only on the holiest day of the year, and only after completing the exacting sacrificial rites.

Clearly, it is not a trivial matter to gain access to the Temple, the place of God's presence. With all these obstacles, it would stand to reason that a person may want to reach out to God and bring a sacrifice without the Temple. This option is denied as well, and the Torah - in the middle of Acharei Mot - prohibits the bringing sacrifices outside the Temple. The first half of Vayikra ends with this prohibition, that is, it ends by underscoring just how difficult it is to connect to God in the Temple through the bringing of sacrifices.

Our parasha, Kedoshim, begins the second half of Vayikra. It presents a radically different approach to holiness and to connecting with God. "Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." (Vayikra 19:2). To access the holy is not to enter the Temple; to access the holy is to strive to become holy. To connect to God is not to enter into the Holy of Holies; to connect to God is to strive to be like God. It is through such striving that we actualize the holiness, the divine, the Tzelem E-lohim, that is in each and every one of us.

There are, then, two types of kedusha, of holiness. There is the kedusha of the first half of Vayikra, and then there is the kedusha of Kedoshim Ti'hiyu. There is a kedusha that conceives of God as residing in a place, and then there is a kedusha that perceives of God residing in each and every person. 

The first represents the attempt to draw close to God, to enter into God's abode. It is thus a kedusha that is highly exclusionary, for what human being can leave this world and enter into the place where God dwells?   

The second holiness, however, is not about leaving this world to be close to God, this is holiness that is about actualizing the divine within us, about bringing God and Godliness into this world. It is thus a kedusha that is accessible by all.

Kedoshim opens, not like Acharei Mot, with daber el Aharon achikha, "Speak to Aharon your brother," but rather with daber el kol adat benei Yisrael, speak to the entire congregation of Israel. All of you, man, woman, child, ritually pure and ritually impure, each one of you can become holy, can become like God. This is a holiness that includes rituals and rites, to be sure, but it is also a holiness of morality, a holiness that touches on every act, every religious act, every interpersonal act, every detail of how we live our lives.

The first kedusha is a holiness of status, a static state of being - God is holy, the Mishkan is holy. Such a kedusha when applied to people, however, can be dangerous. It becomes the claim of Korach: For all the people are holy. They are already holy - there is nothing that needs to be done save to guard and protect this holiness. This holiness implies privilege and entitlement. This holiness leads to a rejection of the world and to flattering us that we are superior to others.

True kedusha, however, does not reassure us that we are better. True kedusha calls upon us to become better: kedoshim ti'hiyu. Not "holy you are" but "holy you shall become." It is a kedusha that points not to self, but to God, "For I the Lord your God am holy." It points upwards and outwards. Each day, strive to become more God-like. Strive to transform yourself, to transform the world.  

Such a kedusha finds holiness in the ethical. Many people see only the ritual, and in particular those activities and modes of dress and behavior that make us distinct from those around us, to be the place where holiness resides. But the holiness of kedoshim ti'hiyu knows that it is not in being different that is what holiness is about, but it is in finding God in every individual and in striving to realize a more God-like existence in all that we do, that defines a life of kedoshim ti'hiyu, of becoming holy.

It is thus we find that Kedoshim opens with two mitzvot: the mitzvah to have awe and respect of one's parents, and the mitzvah to keep Shabbat. An ethical commandment and a religious one. The foundation of our interpersonal behavior in life is laid in the home, and starts with and is shaped by how children interact with their parents. This is how we model a kedusha in the ethical, in seeing God in our relationship with others.

And the foundation of the ritual holiness of this kedusha is not the Temple with its difficult and limited access. It is Shabbat, a staple of our week, a holiness that all can experience, a welcoming of the Divine Presence into our homes. Shabbat is a kedusha that is ultimately outer-focused. It starts with our being distinct - the covenant between ourselves and God. It starts with a kedusha of status. But it ends with transformation. Its goal is to bring holiness into larger world - the universal message of God as creator, of human dignity, of the right to rest and to be free. The holiness of Shabbat spreads into the week, making our work holy as well, pointing us towards a higher purpose, towards tikkun olam, and finally towards a world that is a more perfect world, a messianic world.

The rest of the Kedoshim presents a dense and varied listing of mitzvot, with almost every other verse ending with the refrain Ani Hashem E-loheikhem, "I am the Lord your God," echoing the opening verse, Be holy, for holy am I the Lord your God, "ani Hashem E-loheikheim." The message is clear: this is what it means to be holy, in all your actions, in all your mitzvot, strive to be like God. If we are to live a life of this type of holiness, then we must bring God into our harvesting of grain, in our buying and selling, into our hiring and paying of workers, into our dealing with the disadvantaged, into our speaking of others, into our feelings towards others. To have access to God everywhere also means that we cannot compartmentalize our religious life from our "normal" life. 

To compartmentalize is to choose to see God only in the ritual and, worse, to allow the ritual to reassure us that we are already holy, we are special. It is to give ourselves a pat on the back for what we are and a pass for trying to be anything different, anything better. But kedusha is not our birthright or entitlement. We are not already holy. We must strive to be holy. God can be found in every activity, thus we must strive to find God in all parts of our lives. Holy shall we become, because the Lord our God is holy.

Shabbat Shalom!

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva/A Thought on Sefirat Ha’Omer

I hope you are well and have recovered from Pesach. We resumed our learning this week on Thursday, and I'd like to share with you a sicha I gave on sefirat ha'omer which opened the new post-Pesach zman at the yeshiva. 

The sefirah connecting the two chagim clearly demonstrates that there is a progression from one to the other, that the purpose of freedom from slavery was not just to be free, but for that freedom to lead somewhere, to achieve a higher goal. It was just not what, Isaiah Berlin, would call "a freedom from," freedom from restraints, bondage, and oppression, it was also meant to be a "freedom to," a freedom to serve a higher purpose."They are my servants," avadei hem, "for I have taken them out of the land of Egypt, the house enslavement," mi'beit avadim.  We have been freed from human bondage to devote ourselves serving God. 

The question that I then posed to the students was: "What is this higher purpose?" What is the end of the Pesach story? Is it that we were freed to devote ourselves to living a life of Torah and mitzvot (starting from "we were idol worshippers" and ending with "and now God has drawn us close to serve God")?  Or is it that we were freed so we could enter the Land of Israel and build a society and nation based on Torah and justice (think of the ending of the trajectory of dayeinu and the end, in the Torah, of the arami oved Avi story - "va'yiten lanu et ha'aretz ha'zot", and God gave us this land)?  What is our understanding of what yitziat mitzrayim was all about? What is the ultimate vision, the ultimate goal of all of this?

There are those who use the period of sefirat ha'omer to focus on tikkun ha'midot, working on their character traits. This is a laudatory practice, and the decision to use this as a period of growth is to be commended. But even there, the goal and vision is limited. It is a private, personal one. It does not tap into a larger narrative, it does not attempt to answer the question - "where is this all going?" Contrast this with the kabbalistic approach that connects each day with a different Divine sefirah. That frames sefirat ha'omer in cosmic terms - how our act of sefirah, indeed our entire life of Torah and mitzvot, functions to unite the different aspects of the Divine and to increase God's presence in the world. Whether or not this approach works for us, it at least is an attempt to answer the question "What is this all about?" Before we discuss moving from Pesach to standing at Sinai, we need to determine what and where our Mt. Sinai is.

In general, when we talk about religious striving, we focus on the personal, and on improving ourselves in different ways: better middot, better dikduk bi'mitzvot, more time devoted to Torah, working harder on connecting to God, working harder on our davening.  Again, laudatory and absolutely necessary.  But what we are most in the need of is a larger vision. One could believe, like Rav Yisrael Salanter, that the purpose of focusing on self-betterment is because this is ultimately the end goal of the Torah, to make ourselves, and for everyone in the world to make him- or herself, the most moral and ethical person possible. That would be one answer to the question: why did we leave Egypt?  Where is our journey taking us?  But first we have to ask the question.

What we are most in the need of as a narrative that will take us from Mitzrayim and point us to the Promised Land. We need this for ourselves, for the larger Jewish community, and for the world. And if we don't yet know what the answer is, the first step is to begin to ask the question.