Thursday, May 12, 2016

Plant Your Flag at the Peak / Parshat Kedoshim 2016-5776

When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953, they
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
achieved a feat never before accomplished by human beings. The very image of a mountain suggests both aspiration and challenge. We have reached the apex of the Torah.
            Imagine the Torah—all five books—as Mount Sinai. Genesis ascends from the ground on one side, ceding turf to Exodus, which occupies the slopes above it. Deuteronomy rises from the ground on the other side, and Numbers continues the upward climb. Leviticus occupies the uppermost slopes, and at the very top is Parshat Kedoshim—the peak, the pinnacle, the apogee.

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ:  כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.’” (Leviticus 19:1-2)

Parshat Kedoshim articulates the paramount goal of Torah: to mold us into a holy people for whom life is both a gift and a charge. Unlike the summit of Mt. Everest, this is a mountain we can all scale and each of us can plant a flag on the peak. Parshat Kedoshim teaches us that we do not live by ourselves or for ourselves, alone, but rather should strive to make the welfare of others a high priority. That is why we find in this parashah, in particular, laws designed to protect the poor, create a civil and safe society for all, insure open and straight-forward business and social dealings and an honest and upright judiciary, and set standards for moral interpersonal relationships.
            Given this Torah portion’s preeminence, isn’t it curious that the first three mitzvot—articulated succinctly and without elaboration—concern honoring one’s parents, keeping shabbat, and refraining from idolatry? Here they are:

אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.  ד אַל-תִּפְנוּ, אֶל-הָאֱלִילִם, וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My sabbaths; I, Adonai, am your God. Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I, Adonai, am your God. (Leviticus 19:3-4)

            Why are these three the headliners? To answer that question, let’s consider, for a moment, the meaning of holiness. The Maggid of Mezeritch, Dov Baer Friedman (d. 1772), understood holiness to be life itself. He quotes midrash Tanna de-bei Eliyahu Zuta which says that holiness means, “There will be no death in your midst.” This is similar to what King David said, “I shall not die but live; I will proclaim the deeds of Adonai” (Psalm 118:17). In Or Torah, the Maggid tells us:

The Zohar teaches that any prayer or word of Torah that does not come forth from the depth of the heart with reverence and love does not fly upward.[1] Anyone who brings forth a word of Torah or prayer, heaven forbid, without love and reverence, meaning pure thought and an understanding heart, is called “dead,” because such a person has no place in Life, the name Yah, [which refers to the sefirot] Chochmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Insight),[2] as is known. The dead will not praise God (Psalm 115:17).

Holiness, the Maggid is telling us, is the quintessence of life. But “holy” is less an adjective describing a state of being (as we are, perhaps, accustomed to thinking of the term) than it is a way of being in the world and the attributes though which one relates to everything and everybody in the world: Holiness is a deep and abiding attachment to the Source of Life—to God whose Presence and Reality fills and contains the universe—which is forged by living a life of reverence and love. That’s a pretty heady idea for most of us to grasp and keep in mind, day by day, or even hour by hour. And so the Maggid helps us by identifying the middot (character attributes) of reverence and love that help us make the connection and hold onto holiness in our day to day lives. By practicing reverence and love—which is to say, treating everything and everyone with respect and appreciation—our prayers, our thoughts, our words, and our Torah all rise to the level of Chochmah and Binah, the sefirot (emanations) that come directly from God.
            Honoring one’s parents, keeping shabbat, and refraining from idolatry provide the living framework for nurturing these attributes in ourselves. Let’s consider each, in turn, beginning with honoring one’s parents.

Our Sages taught: there are three partners in the creation of a human being: the Holy One Blessed be God, the father, and the mother. When a person honors his father and mother, the Holy Blessed One says, “I ascribe merit to them as though I had dwelled among them and they had honored Me.”  (BT Kiddushin 30b[3])

            The Rabbis understood that parents are our first model for trying to conceive God. Even more, honoring one’s parents is both the most obvious mitzvah and, as the Rabbis note, also the chamur she-b’chamurot—the hardest of the hard. A child naturally (and properly) strives for independence, but that often clashes with hakarat ha-tov, the gratitude one owes one’s parents. Parents often want closeness and connection on their schedule, which might not synch with a child’s growth pattern and needs, or stage of life. The relationship between a child and parent involves emotional intimacy and constancy in an ever-changing relationship—children and parents both grow, mature, and change in different ways. But if we can succeed in honoring our parents despite the inherent challenges to our self-image, self-esteem, personal goals, and independence, we are well on the way to cultivating reverence and love—indeed we need to have cultivated the middot of reverence and love to succeed in fulfilling this mitzvah. Additionally, the Rabbis understood that the family is the basic unit of society. Honoring one’s parents is the glue that holds the family together, just as families are the glue that holds a society together.
            Shabbat is a gift—a day off! Shabbat is a day of rest on which to enjoy life, visit with family and friends, eat and pray and study and make love. Yet keeping shabbat entails preparation and work—a commitment of time and resources. Ironically, it isn’t easy to carve out shabbat and make it joyous and meaningful. But it grounds us in community so that our lives are intertwined with others. If family is the first social unit in which we learn to function with reverence and love, community (friends and beyond) is the next social unit in which we make our reverence and love manifest to others.
            The prohibition against idolatry caps the first three mitzvot of Kedoshim, reminding us that everything we do in life is mediated by our priorities, whether or not we are conscious of that fact. All our deeds—and especially our relationships—can be about holiness, or about idolatry depending upon the goals that motivate them. When we raise our thinking to a conscious level and approach all that we do through the middot of reverence and love, the result cannot be idolatry; it must be holiness.
            Taken together, the first three mitzvot of Kedoshim are a primer in living a life of holiness. Easier or harder than scaling Mt. Everest? But it’s not Everest we need to climb—it’s Mount Sinai. And these days between Pesach and Shavuot are a great time to take stock in ourselves, our mountaineering equipment, and our technique. The view from Sinai is great—the possibility to create holiness 360 degrees around.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Panorama taken from the peak of "Mt. Sinai"

[1] He is actually quoting Tikkunei Zohar t. 10, 25b here.
[2] The two highest divine emanations coming from Keter, the source of emanations.
[3] Another version is found in BT Niddah 31a.

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