Kedushim: Leviticus

D’Var Torah written by Rachel Eryn Kalish, M.C., May 2016

I want to thank your congregation for welcoming me here and inviting my thoughts on today’s parasha, Kedushim, whose overarching theme is that we should be Holy because G-d is Holy.

Let’s just take that in for a moment. If you would like to, please join me for a deep breath where you feel into your heart, soul, and kishkas, into the deep essence of who you are. Far beyond what we do for work, where we live, who we are married to or perhaps unmarried from, how smart our kids are (important as these manifestations of who we are are), even beyond what we think, what we believe, there is something within each of us that our tradition calls T’selem Elohim—the Unique Spark of the Divine One. Imagine that we are called to live from that place of awareness of our own Holy Spark and to treat each other as equally Holy Sparks!

Of course this is way easier said than done and the whole point of a spiritual practice is all of the “how tos” that come with this teaching.

Some of those “how tos” get reinterpreted for each age and stage and place. For instance, some of the “how tos” found in Kedushim are for temple times only and include practices for how to sacrifice animals… and some cut across all times and places like not stealing, or dealing deceitfully, or defrauding or insulting, or withholding wages, or rendering unfair judgments or benefiting from the blood of our fellows. Has there ever been a period of history, including our very own, when we don’t need to be reminded of these basic decencies?

Of course the most well known passages in Kedushim are Vahavata L’rehecha kmocha, which is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and (Lev. 19:34) – K’ehhzrach mi-khem yeeh’yeh la-khem ha-ger etkhem v’ahavta lo kamokhah ki gayreem hehyitem b’eretz mitzrayim. Ahnee YHVH (Adonai) ehlohaikhem, to treat the stranger well for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Our beloved sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel quipped that “we are commanded to love our neighbor so this must mean that we can.” At our L & L we will talk and practice the “how tos” of doing so especially when there are very great differences of opinion over something that many of us see as existentially threatening like Israel or US politics or even sometimes, in some families, where to go for dinner.

For now let’s focus on these two core teachings of treating each other well whether we are known to each other or strangers. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Shelly Lewis has a beautiful book called The Torah of Reconciliation which looks at each parasha through the lens of healing relationships.

He writes that this parasha acknowledges the difficulty in living this out because it names the reality of hatred (“you shall not hate your brother in your heart”) and calls for hate to be transformed into its opposite, because the ultimate goal is love and that love should be pursued even if the pathway leads through times of conflict. The destructive consequences of enduring hatred for both parties are to be actively avoided.

I have a dear friend who was not invited to his family’s Seder because some of his political views are different than those of other family members. He was deeply hurt. And I come from the Bay Area where until several years ago the community was being shredded over differences about Israel. And we only have to look at the hatred expressed in this year’s Presidential campaign by some candidates and some supporters to see what hatred does to a country. We are a people who know only too well what the negative impact of ceaseless and senseless hatred (sinat hinam) can be, from the partial cause of the destruction of the second temple because of our internal hatred to the horrors of history when others hated us. The prices of hatred are high–to our own souls, to our family relationships and to our communities. When the hard work of transforming hatred into love is not considered a worthy task and pursued as vigorously as any other goal we suffer and we cause suffering for others.

Yet who among us doesn’t know how hard it can be to move the great distance from hatred and vengeance to love when we have been hurt or we perceive that someone is hurting our community? In addition to the emotional challenge, add to that the biological challenge. Neuroscientists show us how the amygdale in the brain gets “hijacked” when we are triggered and is literally unable to access higher centers of reason, compassion and care.

Yet despite these challenges, the Chafetz Chayim teaches that there is more to all of us than one can possibly know within the context of human relationships. G-d knows and treasures the worth of every single human being, each of us T’selem Elohim. So we are called to suspend our assumptions and our judgments and trust that what we can know about each other pales in comparison to what G-d knows about each of us. i.e. part of the path to reconciliation is humility. Part of it is speaking up when we perceive something is off the mark. And part of it is being willing to forgive when we have been hurt.

Maimonides, in The Laws of Repentance, says that in regard to transgressions between people one is not forgiven until one gives to the other what one owes them and mollifies the other and asks for forgiveness. We are required to attempt to make amends and if that fails then to send a delegation to try. And we are also called to be forgiving when we are hurt. None of this means that we ignore transgressions. In fact we are called to rebuke each other for doing harm though we are called to do so with utmost compassion: first in private, then among a small circle and only as a very last resort in public. Think about how different our community and society might be if we truly adhered to this in our political discussions. Imagine no name calling in the press, on social media or at political rallies? Less entertaining perhaps yet deeper, more thoughtful more truly enlivening conversations ensue.

So in sum the core centerpiece of Torah, and this parasha, is focused on seeing and treating each other as T’selem Eloyhim as sparks of The Holy One, to walk that talk, to see the holy in each other’s eyes, to listen to every Presidential debate, or every view about Israel, every family member or every neighbor or every stranger as if each person speaking is a Holy Divine spark with an important message to deliver of at least a partial truth. One colleague says we can disagree vehemently with someone and do everything we can to stop them from gaining political power yet we don’t need to do so with hate in our heart.

I want to loop back for a moment to the overarching theme of holiness in all its manifestations including striving to do good in all our interactions. “You shall sanctify yourselves to be holy.”

We are living in the midst of modernity where many of our institutions feel like they are conspiring against seeing life as a holy unfolding of the Divine yes? Modernity frees us and it fragments us. It liberates our minds and hearts from superstition and brings us science and truths about the material world our ancestors could not have imagined. And yet it can trash the sacred along with the untrue.

Many of us believe that on the other side of modernity is a culture struggling to emerge, one that is more integrated, that brings forth the best of tradition and the best of the modern world into something that is more whole, more holy. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, pointed the way when he talked about three stages of spiritual development: stage of Chachna-a, submission to G-d (I counted 18 times “I am the Lord” in this parasha)…the parental version of this is “do it because G-d said so.” For some of us that is a good enough reason to do anything. For many of us it isn’t or it wasn’t or it won’t be and that leads to Havdallah, to separation, to seeing ourselves as separate from G-d, and separate from each other. That’s often where the modern mind stops. But if we keep deepening our practice, through davenen, meditation (yes there are many Jewish meditation practices!) and works of loving kindness, than the last stage is Ha-mtkah, sweetening, where integration happens, where we are free to have a discerning mind and fully embrace science and liberal concerns for civil rights AND to feel G-d’s presence with each breath, and see holiness in each encounter, in all of life.

There is a passage in the Women’s Torah Commentary, which seems to tie this whole parasha together when Rabbi Rachel Esserman says “we are a Holy people because we treat others as Holy.” So let’s keep learning how to do that—to treat each other as Holy, to live as Holy, to model for a world aching for something different than the boxing match we are witnessing in the political arena or the ravaging conflicts across parts of the planet– in other words to be the holiness as we continue our journey as a light unto each other.