Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 10, 2019 / 5 Iyyar 5779
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Summary: Rabbi Kosak explores the central theme of the weekly Torah reading which comes from a section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code.
Mirror, Mirror On the Wall
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s the holiest one of all?
Parshat Kedoshim, Leviticus chapters 19-20
Most of us have encountered the story of Snow White and the Evil Queen at some point. The Queen is deeply invested in being perceived as the most beautiful person in her kingdom. While the story never provides a reason for the queen’s fixation on beauty or her need to be the only or most beautiful one, answers readily come to mind. Perhaps her society imagines it represents perfection or places beauty as the paramount virtue, the quality of prime virtue. Perhaps she harbors a common enough delusion that outer beauty is reflective of inner loveliness. Or perhaps she understands that beauty is the source of her power; if she wishes to hold on to it, it is important that she remain the most attractive.
In modern years, biologists have been able to parse out why beauty is attractive to us—it is, in evolutionary terms, a visual shortcut indicating health, viability and reproductive fitness. Against that more common perspective, Judaism offered to the world a corrective. In the thirty first chapter of Proverbs, we read שקר החן והבל היפי. “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain.” That insight arises in multiple other places, such as when the Talmud proffers marriage advice, instructing us we should focus on a person’s family of origins and the values they learned in their formative years.
In place of beauty, or wealth or power, the Torah instead urges us to be holy. “Be a nation of priests, and a holy people.” This injunction to be holy is given its fullest treatment in this week’s Torah portion, which is fittingly called, Kedoshim, for its first significant verse, kedoshim t’hiyu ki kadosh ani Ado-nai Elo-heichem. You shall be holy, for I, Your God, am Holy.
The Torah then proceeds to offer us a series of guiding rules by which we can imitate God and be holy. Remarkably, while some of those instructions call for certain types of ritual behavior, such as not shaving the corners of our heads, the Torah is primarily concerned with our ethical behavior.
Among the mitzvot that will help us achieve the requisite level of holiness, we are commanded not to steal, or deal falsely, or commit fraud or robbery. We must not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. We should rule fairly in court cases, and not be biased by a person’s wealth or poverty. We are forbidden to engage in human trafficking, even if it is with our own children—a reminder that we do not own our offspring. We must have honest weights and measures in business, and show respect to our elders.
This is somewhat remarkable, because I suspect that if we asked the average person on the street to name a very holy person, their minds would go elsewhere. They might think of the Pope, or the Dalai Lama. They might, in other words, seek someone who is a bit other-worldly.
But what if the question were phrased a bit differently, a little more like the Evil Queen’s question to her magic mirror? What sort of answer would we get to “who is the holiest person you know?” I asked that specific questions to some friends and colleagues around the building, and was touched by the answers.
One person thought their religious mother was the holiest person they knew because of her capacity to love; when they came out to her, they had the opportunity to observe as their mother wrestled to find a place where love, religion and tolerance could coexist in a full embrace. Seeing their mother grow in this profoundly moving way was an experience of holiness.
Another person thought a beloved teacher was the holiest person they knew, both for the way that teacher walked through life with a spirit of modesty (tzni’ut) and gratitude (hoda’ah). Those qualities might have been tested when the teacher contracted a difficult cancer, but throughout the illness, the person continued to feel tremendous gratitude both for life and for their doctors. This teacher exemplified and deeply embodied the values they espoused.
A third individual spoke of “accurate love,” and mentioned a massage therapist they knew. This therapist would look at you for a few moments, and then immediately work on a single spot on the body where all your pain had gathered. A single press could release waves of pain and relief. That ability to see someone so clearly that they could pinpoint their pain and bring sudden healing felt like a holy act. Indeed, this colleague continued, when younger they imagined that there were holy individuals. With a bit more experience, they now believe that everyone has moments in which they act from a place of holiness.
That last insight returns us to our Torah parashah. For when the Torah instructs us to be a holy people, it isn’t looking to produce an otherworldly individual, at least not as we commonly imagine it. Rather, Jewish holiness may stand apart from the normal ways of the world, but it occurs in the world by how we navigate the same everyday tasks and challenges that all people face.
Those people we experience as holy are often the ones whose characters are imprinted by their ethical living in such a way that we can perceive their holiness: a loving mother, a gifted masseuse, a modest teacher. Simultaneously, our tradition speaks of the lamadvavnik, a person so deeply holy that we can’t even perceive them in that way. Their holiness is so truly otherworldly, that we might miss them in the grocery aisle. And yet Judaism holds the belief that it is only on behalf of those 36 hidden righteous individuals that the world continues to exist.
There is something compelling when we imagine that the most nondescript person might be the most fully formed human, the truly holy individual. What that might mean I will leave you to ponder.
Stay cool as the thermometer creeps toward 90 and shabbat shalom,
Shabbat Table Talk
- We will often say, “so and so is beautiful, attractive, cute, handsome.” When was the last time you heard someone say “so and so is really holy?”
- What do you think holiness means? Does the English word “holy” correspond with the Hebrew word “kadosh?”
- When you look in the mirror, who or what do you see?
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