Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – B’Shalach

“Holy, holy, holy, is the God of hosts.” So said the prophet Isaiah (6:3). I have to wonder why Isaiah needed to say it three times. Were we not listening? Perhaps the prophet knew that it provides a great tempo for liturgical music? Our tradition thrives on taking textual anomalies and using them as teaching moments. A few years back, I used this text to speak about, “Holy, Holey, or Wholly – three approaches to God.”

In the same vein, I read this week’s Torah portion and got stuck on a line that many dismiss as poetic symmetry. “Until Your people have crossed, O God; until the people that You acquired have crossed over.” (Exod. 15:16) Is “Your people” the same as “the people You have acquired?” Rav Avraham Kook argued that they refer to two different points on our journey through history. The text becomes a voice of prophecy.

“Your people” refers to the people God and Moses freed from servitude. The waters of the Red Sea parted, and Israel walked to freedom. At Sinai, God refers to people of faith (Israel) as God’s own. Forty years later, they crossed the River Jordan as Joshua leads the people into the promised land.

Hundreds of years later, invaders destroyed the First Temple and carried our ancestors into exile. Seventy years later, they returned, crossing the River Jordan to come back to the land. These people were not carried on eagle’s wings. God did not lead them as a pillar of cloud or fire. They returned on their volition and choice.

Rav Kook speaks of two different forms of holiness. One is the inherited sense of connection. It is the piece of us that is immutable because it is because we are and because of those from whom we descend. The second form of holiness is a willed or consciously attuned sense of spiritual elevation. Through our study, our behaviors, and choices we mold our active relationship with Divinity.

For Rav Kook, the two “holinesses” defined the different populations of the First and Second Temple periods. He proposed that the two co-exist in every Jew in Israel today. What kind of holiness applies to those today who define their faith outside of the land? What is holiness to the non-Temple period of the State of Israel – modern day Zionism.

Zionism is a charged word. For parts of the world, it is a code word for hate, but they really have no idea what the word means or of the ethos behind it. Zionism comes from a root word meaning perfection. Metzuyon is the Hebrew word for perfect. Zionism is a prophetic hope for the world’s perfection – hardly accusations that gets thrown at Jews.

For Jews, it refers to the holistic love we have for our people, our tradition, and the land – all key elements of the term “Israel.” This love requires us to both celebrate its magnificence and, at the same time, hold it accountable where it falters. True Zionism demands that if this modern Israel claims to represent my Judaism, then I must love how it does and work on fixing how it does not. I would argue that we are defining a third holiness, perhaps one that makes us redefine the verse from Torah. This sense of holiness is not tied to the geography, but to the spirit of and hope for a perfected world.

In modernity, we move further and further away from the notion of being who we are because of who we come from. We are transient both geographically and philosophically. We no longer hold on to beliefs because that’s what we grew up being taught. At the same time, many of us “return” to Jerusalem spiritually, but may never cross the river to return to living in the land.

Where Rav Kook focused on the different descriptions of the people in the land, I think we need to read this verse using Israel as the allegorical place of faith to argue that all sorts of people “cross the river” physically and/or spiritually. Perhaps the verse is a prophetic call for the ingathering of people of faith – crossing the boundaries of the exile that we have built between us. For too long, people have been using “religion” as a tool for separation of humanity. When we use our faith as weapons to demean others or as excuses to create boundaries between us, we stay outside of God. Crossing from these barriers, even from our diverse faith perspectives, we rejoin with God and return to each other. Holiness thus defines our efforts to elevate ourselves beyond the obstacles that tie us to our egos, fears, and insecurities that support our separation. God’s people, from wherever and whatever tradition – its time to return.

Shabbat Shalom.