Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Parashat Kedoshim - A Recipe for Holiness

b"h

This year, parashat Acharei Mot and parashat Kedoshim are read separately - in non-leap years they are combined as a double parasha. The juxtaposition of the two is instructive, for Acharei Mot contains a list of prohibitions and ends with a general admonition not to follow any of the "abominable practices" of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. This is preparatory to us taking possession of the Land, which is supposed to occur immanently - we do not read parashat Shelach Lecha for another seven weeks; as far as we are concerned, we are heading straight for the Promised Land.

Parashat Kedoshim, on the other hand, opens with positive commandments. And again, it is a broad general command set in opposition to the closing command of Acharei Mot: (chapter 19 verse 2) '... speak to the congregation of bnei Israel and say to them: 'You shall be holy because I am holy...'" The closing appellation can be read two different ways: "because I, HaShem your G-d, am holy," or: "Because I am holy: HaShem your G-d." Reading the text again, I prefer the second reading. It has a more legalistic ring to it, appropriate to the text in question. Significantly, this locution - I am HaShem your G-d; or simply, I am HaShem - repeats innumerable times throughout the parasha as a coda to mitzvah after mitzvah. The message is clear: we are to emulate G-d. Unlike other humans, who are created "beTzelem Elokim" - in the image of G-d - we are commanded to go one step farther and to actually copy G-d's behavior.

This is like the argument regarding the belief in G-d. According to Rambam, for example, there is a positive commandment to believe in G-d. Note that not all Poskim agree that such a mitzvah exists; but or those who do, the argument often follows the Chassidish approach: We can not say we do not KNOW G-d. All creatures are creations of G-d; therefore, all of us have an innate awareness of G-d, of G-d's existence, of G-d's nature. The specific mitzvah is to articulate and acknowledge the existence of G-d, the nature of G-d. My own reading is that we are comparable to people who have lived their entire lives without knowing our own names. We "know" who we are; we have senses, we clearly perceive the boundaries of our selves. But it is not until we are told our names that we know, in the full human sense, Who We Are. In this same way, we come to know G-d, through Torah and mitzvot.

Another way of looking at this phenomenon: we have just come through the week of Peasch, the time when we celebrate our national origin. When we were in Mizraim, we identified ourselves as an undifferentiated mass of the downtrodden. In a moment - and all change happens in an instant - we go from being The Oppressed to being a nation: a collection of tribes, each with its own name, its own group identity, each with its own specific role to play in the future of Am Israel. And, within our groups, we can now identify as individuals. The confrontation we will soon witness between Korach and Moshe grows from this notion: that the individual is no less precious in the eyes of G-d than the Nation.

And so it is through identifying ourselves that we heighten our awareness. The mishna in Pirkei Avot states that humans are blessed because we were created in the image of G-d - but that we are immeasurably more blessed because of the love and kindness which moved G-d to make it known to us that we are created in G-d's image.

Torah gives us the opportunity to take this Uniqueness - the uniqueness of being human - and build a second level of Uniqueness on top of it.

I am often confronted by people - good people, for the most part, who genuinely strive to live moral lives - who tell me, "I don't need religion to be a better person." And all I can say is: you haven't permitted Torah into your life. This week's parasha tells us, through the repeated exhortation "I am G-d", that the very reason we behave morally, the very reason we do what is just and what is right for society and our fellow humans, is because G-d has commanded us. Indeed, lest we should think there is some Higher Morality from which Torah is merely selecting a list of "Best Practices", we are reminded that it is G-d who is instructing us to behave this way. This puts morality into the realm of Halacha, thereby adding a vast new dimension to all our actions.

To select only one - and perhaps the most obvious - of the litany in this parasha, we are told (19:17,18) not to bear a grudge, nor to seek revenge; we are instructed to rebuke our fellow, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Why does rebuke link naturally to self-love?

Why does rebuke remove the need for revenge or bearing a grudge?

Intriguingly, why does the AriZa'l's siddur, used by ChaBaD and some other Chasiddic groups, introduce tyhe morning prayer with the kavannah: Here am I now preparing to accept upon myself the positive commandment "HYou shall love your neighbor as yourself"? How does that enter into the notion of tefillah, of prayer?

Do we not always seek to justify our own behavior? When others are angry, we become disgusted and mutter that they are being unreasonable. When we are angry, there is a good reason. It's because of the iunjustice done to us by someone else. This time, it's real injustice! We don't deserve this treatment!

Ah, but if we could only see into our own hearts, we would then truly understand all human behavior. And there is a true sense in which "tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" - to understand all is to forgive all. Yet, if we truly care about ourselves, we will, in our quieter reflective moments, look within and admonish ourselves. We regret behavior that does not live up to the standards we set ourselves, and we acknowledge that we erred in permitting our emotions to dominate our behavior. We resolve to try to be aware of this, and not to permit it to happen again, not quite the same way. This process is known as Teshuvah - Repentance - and is halachically made up of three steps: Acknowledgement, Confession, Acceptance for future acts. And, while the standard formula for Teshuvah requires Inner Acknowledgement; Oral Confession (viddui be peh); and an acceptance to take future responsibility not to repeat the act, there are opinions that seem, at least, to indicate that G-d accepts as full Teshuvah even a silent inner acknowledgement of one's own wrongdoing.

Still, in a societal context, this does not suffice. In the period leading up to Yom Kippur, we are required to seek out the people with whom we have interacted during the course of the year and to obtain their forgiveness for wrongs we have committed against them. Note that we are not required to ASK their forgiveness, but to OBTAIN it. The basic halacha requires us to ask three times, if they refuse to grant forgiveness, and then to go before Bet Din. Only after going through this process are we permitted to step into the synagogue on Kippur itself and address G-d.

Rabbi Cohen - z'l - of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, used to say: Every Yom Kippur, people walk into shul like it's nothing. They think HaKadosh Baruch Hu is a softie. Try going to someone you hate, someone you've b een angry at all year and asking that person to forgive you for the aggravation you caused them. Try facing your own family - your spouse, your parents, your chuildren - and begging them to forgive you for every time you were unreasonable, every time you lost your temper, every time you acted selfishly. Try talking to other people and see how difficult that is. Then come and tell me how easy it is to stand before G-d and klop Al Chait...

But if we can learn to rebuke one another as gently as we rebuke ourselves, then we will truly be working to make the world a better place.

In tehilim it says that the Prophet came to rebuke David "kebo el Batsheva..." "when he [David] came in to Batsheva..." David was deserving of rebuke, for he had wrought terrible things for the mere purpose of slaking his sexual desire. Yet the Hebrew text suggests an alternate reading. Rabbi Israel Reisman reads it: not "when David came in to Batsheva..." but "AS David came in to Batsheva..." In order for the rebuke to take its effect, the Prophet approached David with deep love, the same way David had approached the woman of his longings. And in the spirit of love, of the intimate spiritual embrace between Prophet and King, the message was truly conveyed to David's heart that he had done wrong, that he needed desperately to do Teshuva. The result is one of the most powereful and beautiful spiritual poems ever written.

Why do we introduce the morning prayer, according to the Ari, with the aknowledgement of the mitzvah ve'ahavta et re'echa camocha ? - And you shall love your fellow as yourself?

Could it be that, when we see the whole world as though through our own hearts, we make the world a better place? How many of us adore our own children, hang on their every word, forgive their every transgression, yet snap instantly into impatience when the neighbor's children appear in our front yard? Other people behave unreasonably, while we act decisively. Other people make unrealistic demands on us, while we do nothing but go out of our way for others. Other people disrespect us, while all we ever do is try to do things for them. I won't ask whether this sounds familiar.

But it is a basic truth of the world that, to the extent we are able to place ourselves in other people's situation - and place others in our own hearts - that is the one true path to making the world a better place. The Ari knew this, and his insistence on accepting the mitzvah of loving one's fellow as a precondition for tefillah is fascinating. After all, how can we expect G-d to accept us, if we refuse to accept one another? And, as this week's parasha makes explicit, we accept one another, not merely because it is The Right Thing To Do, but because G-d expects it of us.

To the adage of Change the world one person at a time, let us add the corollary: One's own self first.

Yours for a better world.

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