D’var Torah Marjan Helms May 2020

“I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.
I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”
Leviticus 22:32

“I will be made holy among the children of Israel.
I am the Lord who makes you holy.”

What do we mean when we speak of holiness? What is holiness? Really?
If you could close your eyes for a moment—or let them drift unfocused into the inner spaces of your mind, with no hurry—and no forced attention… If you could simply rest …quietly…and listen to your own unique truth, what answer would come to your question, “What do I mean when I say, “holy?”
Before you reach too quickly for words or labels, try to sense your answer outside of words. When have you experienced holiness? Where? What did it feel like? What does it feel like now? Whatever you know or remember or imagine as holy, stay with that awareness. Rest in it. Savor it.

“I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am Adonai who sanctifies you.” When we consider this glimpse of holiness, how do we respond? Is there a change in energy, an emotion, an inclination to do something or act in any particular way? The holiness code established in Leviticus calls for recognizing boundaries between what is sacred and what is profane. Both priests and the people at large are called to maintain a
purity that allows the Presence of God to be known.

What do we do to act on our experience of holiness? Or, to put that another way, What rituals do we observe to allow the Presence of God to be known?
We live now in troubled and frightening times, and there is no escape from the tragedy and madness that surround us. But I think escape is not what we want anyway, not really. I find myself drawn instead to an old-fashioned word—Redemption. It is redemption that we long for, not escape—not easy answers, not quick-fixes, not hiding our heads in the sand nor hoping in vain—but Redemption. And how can that happen? How do we reclaim the sanctity of our lives and our world?

Every day for two months I have marked on my calendar the latest numbers of Covid cases and deaths. I write the numbers, reaching out for some sense of connection, but I cannot comprehend their meaning. To reduce human suffering and lives lost to a series of digits is obscene. Like you, I read and listen to news and commentaries until my mind is saturated. I whipsaw from sadness to anger, outrage to despair. It’s far too easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed. So where is holiness in this moment? How do we find it?
How do we recognize it? How can we make ourselves available to receive it?
If we are to sense a boundary between sacred and profane, maybe we have to start by purifying our own minds.

When I first read through this Parshah, the thing that caught my attention was the repeated command to rest—to do no labor. It’s as if the glorious ideal of Shabbat is meant to infuse each festival throughout the year. I wonder if it is not also possible that Shabbat can breathe its grace into the smaller moments of day-to-day life. We need rest. And nourishment. We need moments to remember who we are—to know that we are not the news feed or the bickering, to know that we are separate from the anger and hatred and fear. We need boundaries—even the briefest of moments—to remember the Presence of God and to rest beside still waters. Surely this is the place where Redemption is born.

From the refuge that is Shabbat, I offer a suggestion:
Sometime soon, give yourself a few minutes to rest and lean back into your own heart.

Listen there for holiness—your own holiness, with your own  understanding. And then see if there is anything at all that you would like to do in response. Whatever that might be, no matter how small or simple, consider making it your own private ritual for a day or a week or for as long as you like. Let this gesture be for you as the fire offerings and purifications from so long ago. Let it mark a sacred boundary in time, a moment to
recognize what is holy, a moment to offer yourself to the work of Redemption.

I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.
I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”

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Kedoshim 2020 May D’var Torah

Kedoshim 2020

I want to look at Chapter 19, verses 17 to 18.  Etz Chaim translates these lines: You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.  Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countryman.  Love your fellow as yourself.  I am the Lord.

I am not a Hebrew scholar but I do want to point out a few features of the Etz Chaim translation.  In the first line the referent for Etz Chaim’s “kinsfolk” is unambiguously “brother” in the Hebrew, as the note clearly indicates.  Perhaps the decision to go with “kinsfolk” is gender flattening.  In fairness, Etz Chaim does point out that “brother” creates a level of closeness that surpasses the broader “kinsfolk.” Where Etz Chaim has “countryman” and “fellow” most translations that I have seen use “neighbor.”

The other intriguing grammatical point that I see is that in the famous “Love your neighbor (or fellow) as yourself”, the object of the verb is expressed in Hebrew not, as you would take it from the English, as a direct object but rather indirect. Sort of Love ‘to’ your neighbor as yourself.  This use of the preposition ‘le’ may be idiomatic, but commentators, like the Rambam think the usage illuminates Hillel’s famous negative restatement of this sentence: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  Hillel’s version puts emphasis on specific acts that one could do and not on a general feeling of “love”, or in Hillel’s case hate.  The suggestion from Rambam is that the sentence in Verse 18 does not refer to a general feeling of love but rather to the requirement to do gemilat chasadim, deeds of lovingkindness, for one’s neighbor or fellow.  So one should demonstrate one’s with action, even actions of remonstration and criticism, rather than letting perceived bad behavior go unremarked.

At first glance this passage may seem a bit of a jumble, perhaps even contradictory.  But Rashbam, a grandson of Rashi, and many other commentators regard them as a unit. “If you are someone’s friend (or neighbor, or kinsman or –woman), and they do something that you consider wrong, reprove them, admonish them.  Do not plot against them or harbor animosity.   And do not look the other way or you will be culpable for their wrongdoing also.  The negative statement, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart” that begins the passage is balanced at the close by “Love your fellow (or neighbor) as yourself.”

As many of you know, Rabbi Akiva regarded the statement “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a major principle of the Torah, one that is predicated on the two words that follow: Ani Adonai.  The implication is that Hashem, God, Yud Hay Vav Hay is the creator of you and also the creator of your neighbor or fellow or kinsman or woman.  There is a fundamental, creaturely equality that necessarily binds us one to another, even when this other is annoying or even antagonizing us through their actions.  And we are enjoined to act on the basis of that equality.  Our “love” of our fellow creature must overcome our annoyance, even our hatred.

It is apt to reflect on this principle these days.  At this time of great stress in the land I am finding that my own relationships with my neighbors and fellows has become less flat and anodyne than I confess it usually is.   People don’t stand 6 feet away from me and I get annoyed.  I can estimate 6 feet pretty well; but why do I assume that others can as well and are deliberately violating that policy?  Ont the other hand, people do decent things and I feel perhaps a little more warmth and fellow feeling than I suspect I would normally. This face covering, policy, if that is what it is, which I am by and large observing, is creating for me, and probably for others, an additional barrier.  The innate ability to acknowledge and establish fellow-feeling with a stranger is greatly impeded when your mouth is covered.  It is a barrier in more ways than one.

I have absolutely no qualifications to ascribe or suggest appropriate actions to others.  But I am going to resolve that I will try to be more understanding of the behaviors of others at this time.  I have to acknowledge that the large university where I work has never been more divorced from the reality of the surrounding community than at this moment.  Yes, we have undergone enormous and swift change.  We are unsettled and apprehensive too.   But the vast majority of people connected with MSU, at least so far, are feeling little of the stunning financial hardship that many of our neighbors are feeling.  I will try to remember: Ani Adonai.

Of course, we are also witnessing and perhaps experiencing deeper divisions between people who don’t seem to be living in the same country as us, even though they are.  Even within the same state some seem capable of regarding their countrymen and women as strangers.  It is disease for New Yorkers, for minorities in Detroit or Chicago, for people in prisons.  I guess for some might say for the old and the infirm.  On the other side, there are people who I know are thinking or even saying, wait till really hits in Georgia or Florida.  Do we wish that it will?  I hope not.  Today’s parsha speaks to these feelings as well, and to the reality of many minority workers in newly essential or essentialized industries like meatpacking, foodservice, hospital laundry and maintenance.  This week’s parsha reminds us (verse 34 in chapter 19) that God is also the creator of those who are very different from whoever we are or think we are: The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens.  You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, Ani Adonai Elohaychem.


Shabbat Shalom.