If you were to climb the stairs to the next floor, you would find attached to a closet door a list of Religious School expectations. They include keeping hands to oneself. Respecting each other. Doing acts of loving kindness. Speaking quietly, one at a time. Treating other people how you want to be treated. Keeping hands to ourselves.
They are signed by each student.
We read them aloud each Tuesday before school starts.
We developed these not because our children are angels who don’t need them, but because we discovered that agreement, buy-in and repetition have made a difference in how the day goes. Both for the kids AND the teachers.
The commandments in the Torah seem like they are pretty much there for the same reason. To help us get along in community.
But more important, I think , to create a holy community.
If I were to ask you if you’d ever experienced holiness, what would you say?
If I asked, do you know someone who is holy?
If you have ever done a holy act? Or been part of a holy act?
What would that involve?
Dictionary.com offers 8 definitions of holy; here are a few of them:
❐ specially recognized as or declared sacred by religious use or authority; consecrated: holy ground.
❐ dedicated or devoted to the service of God, the church, or religion: a holy man.
❐ saintly; godly; pious; devout: a holy life.
❐ having a spiritually pure quality: a holy love.
❐ religious: holy rites.
❐ inspiring fear, awe, or grave distress: The director, when angry, is a holy terror.
This week’s torah double torah portions, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, are entirely dedicated to holiness. Indeed, Kedoshim means holiness. That root kuf-dalet-shin appears in so many important instances – we said kiddush earlier, as we sanctified shabbat and separated it from the rest of the week… a wedding is a kiddushin – when two people sanctify themselves to each other. In all the commandment blessings we say, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav – who sanctifies us with mitzvot…l’kadeish means to be holy, to sanctify and to separate…
Kedoshim opens with the verse, YHWH tells Moses “Speak to all the assembly of Israel and tell them: “You shall be holy, because I, your God, am holy…” Nachmanides, the Ramban, our 13th century Spanish commentator, noted that this verse refers to people who separate themselves from the material world as much as possible and practice self-restraint. Self restraint in speech, in eating, in business, in how we treat each other…
Jacob Milgrom, who has studied Leviticus his entire adult life, says that the essence of divine holiness, which is accessible to everyone, “can be captured in the ethics that Israel is bidden to follow” in the words that Moses is about to speak.
A colleague of mine from AJR, R. Neil Blumofe, writes, “to be holy means to invest ourselves in living deliberately and with purpose. What do we care about, when the rubber meets the road?”
Kedoshim tells us exactly what we must do in order to be holy. Its 52 laws cover a range of subjects, ten matched to the 10 Commandments. If we were to do these, faithfully, religiously, consistently and with intent/kavvanah in our hearts, we would be helping to make the world a better place, and would, I believe, bring ourselves closer to what holiness is about…
Some of what I care about when the rubber meets the road appears in the verses that address how we communicate with each other. Verse 16 commands us not to go about carrying tales from house to house against our neighbors: no gossiping. The next verse demands our attention: You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart, and you shall surely rebuke (hokhay’ach tokhe’ach) your kinsfolk and incur no guilt because of them… and then, immediately: Love your neighbor as yourself…
Our two Bat Mitzvah students are grappling with stories that illustrate these commandments from the holiness code. In Korach, Moses’ cousin foments a rebellion because he claims Moses has taken too much power. The rabbis tell us Korach was not fighting for justice or representation before taxation, but because Korach wanted to accrue power from Moses: he was operating out of jealousy and a feeling of being left behind. He dragged his 250 followers to their deaths because he was hurt and didn’t know how to express his pain in a healthy way. In Pinchas, Rebecca’s portion, we read the story of the daughters of Zeloph’chad, five brave women who challenged the laws of inheritance. The rabbis tell us that these women figured out how to ask, when to ask, and how to argue their case in a way that Moses and the leaders of the community could hear, so that Moses would present their case to God. God agreed with them.
How we do things matters, how we say things matters…
So back to “do not hate your kinfolk in your heart – surely rebuke them…” Our medieval commentators note that this commandment is NOT telling us to hate openly, but rather to challenge our associates when they do something we find objectionable or hurtful—a racist or sexist or antisemitic joke, being cruel to a sibling or parent or spouse or friend… tell them when they have done wrong. Don’t let the incident fester. How many of us have refrained from saying something, and then, carried a grudge? Anyone here? The Torah is telling us: it’s not so good for the community and even worse for your own peace of mind.
You shall surely rebuke… the rabbis in the Talmud have a long discussion (B. Arakhin 16b) about this: R. Tarfon wonders if there is one person in their generation who knows how to accept rebuke. R. Eleazar b. Azariah responds: I wonder if there is one person in this generation who knows how to give rebuke!
Ain’t it the truth? Have things changed much? How we say it matters: can we be like the daughters of Zeloph’chad and say it in a way someone else can hear, or will we just trample our loved ones like Korach with unedited feelings of pain? These concepts are repeated over and over and OVER because we kept needing them. If they were easy, what purpose would they serve? Just like our kids need regular reminders, so do each of us…
If we want to belong to a holy community, then heeding many of the 52 laws in Kedoshim will help us. Although I would love for us to spend weeks on these, let me just suggest – tell your family and friends when they’ve done something you think is wrong, but do so in a manner that they can hear. Rebuke doesn’t have to be done in anger or sharpness. Sometimes gentleness and curiosity can be more effective. Don’t let things fester. But in the end, love your neighbor, no matter what we do, because we are human and trying our best. And together – with honesty and forgiveness and recognition of each of our humanity and spark of the divine – we can be holy.