Yom Rishon, 10 Av 5778
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Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah-Acharei/Kedoshim

In the middle of our liturgy, we recall the words spoken by the Prophet Isaiah, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Adonai tzevaot - Holy, Holy, Holy is Adonai of hosts.” The text also teaches, “Kedoshim ti’h’yu, ki kadosh Ani, Adonai – Be holy for I, God am holy.” So, I asked our religious school what the word “holy” meant. Of course, they looked back at me like I had three heads.

I commented that they read the word several times in each service, and it’s important to know what the prayers mean. It was a wonderful conversation, made quite funny when someone pointed out that his socks were “holey.” I commented that I did not know that socks could be religious. We evolved the conversation to talk about gleaning one’s fields. Normally, if one plants crops on a square or rectangular field, one would want to glean from corner to corner.

Torah commands us to glean in a circular pattern, leaving the corners of the fields uncut. I asked why. Quickly, students responded with several good answers: animals need food; poor people need to eat; people passing by may be hungry. I asked them why we needed to provide for all these. It did not take long for them to realize that to was not just to be nice, or because someone told us to do so. They began to understand that we do this because we are paying attention and actively doing something about the needs that we see; the ones we might not see if we are thinking only of ourselves.

Leaving the corners of the field is not a matter of gaining a reward for a special project feeding the needy; it is all about making access to food for others part of our daily existence. Taking care of others is not something that we do; it is something that we are. This state of being is holiness.

Holiness happens when we find ourselves thinking past ourselves, attentive to the world around us. Holiness is not only in the extraordinary acts of exceptional people but in the extraordinary acts of ordinary people and even the ordinary acts of ordinary people. We walk sightless among miracles for most of our lives. We perform life and religious rituals on a checklist handed down and manipulated about for thousands of years. The list has become our focal point, not the holiness that drove the creation of the ritual. Eating dinner because it’s dinner time (even while one is not hungry) is a problem. Lighting Shabbat candles is not an act of holiness, either. Setting aside the week filled with challenges and celebrations, so that we can renew and restore, preparing for the next week is holy. We light the candles to remind us of this holy time period, not to make sure candles get lit.   

For me, the cornerstone text bespeaking holiness comes from Pirke- Avot - Ethics of our Sages (first century): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what good am I? If not now, when?”

We have to stand up and be counted. Our needs matter. So, however, do everyone else’s needs. The proliferation of conflict that continues to separate us stems from everyone living the first sentence while ignoring the second. Politicians want to win elections and maintain power and popularity. Too often, compromise exists when it benefits the one giving in, not when it is the right thing to do … or the holy way to respond. 

Holiness is the synergy of the right and the left into something bigger than either by itself. Perhaps the most important phrase from this text comes at the end: the time for holiness is now. What a crime if we let one more person live or die without dignity. Reb Nachman of Bratzlov taught us, “Faith is the root and foundation of all holiness.” We have to believe that people matter, in the same ways that we expect to matter. It takes faith in the sense of love much larger than you or I can quantify. How can one claim to be holy and not hold love and respect for all that the source of holiness created? Another Hasidic teaching reminds us, "To love God truly, you must first love humanity (all of it). And if anyone tells you that he loves God but does not love his fellow man, he is lying." Time to rethink prejudice. Shabbat shalom.