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How to be Holy in Three Easy Steps – Qedoshim 5782

Some of you have surely heard me say that Qedoshim is truly my favorite parashah (e.g. here). That is not merely because, 39 years ago, I was called to the Torah for the first time as a bar mitzvah, one who has inherited the 613 mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life, to read from this part of the Torah. Rather it is because, and I did not really get this 39 years ago, it contains the most essential line in the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. I would not even dare to fantasize about correcting the great 1st-century BCE sage Hillel. However, if I were in his shoes 2,000 years ago, when he was asked by a potential convert to teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg (as in the famous midrash), I would have said (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2): 

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

That is how chapter 19 of Vayiqra / Leviticus opens. Now, it is worth pointing out, as one of my teachers from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Raymond Scheindlin put it: 

But the chapter doesn’t begin “Be moral, for I the Lord your God am moral” or “Be righteous, for I the Lord your God am righteous.” It begins “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Being holy is not necessarily being moral or righteous or socially conscious or politically engaged, although it may include all of those things. Being holy transcends the day-to-day mundane affairs which fill our lives. It is a much higher template for living. And Chapter 19 of Vayiqra / Leviticus, much of which we read today, teaches us how to be holy in three easy steps! I’ll tell you what they are in a moment, but first let me make the case for why you might want to pursue a holy life.

First, let’s face it: we are living in challenging times. (The working title for my book, by the way, is Torah for Tough Times.) Consider the great sense of isolation many people feel today, climate change, a yawning chasm between political factions in this nation which even cleaves families in two, the ongoing scourge of opioid abuse, rising rates of anti-Semitic activity, and throw in two years of pandemic and a senseless war in Eastern Europe, and a leaked document from the Supreme Court threatening abortion rights, just to name a few of the things that are raising our collective blood pressure.

Second, consider the fact that the spiritual framework which nourished our ancestors has gone away. Our forebears faced the challenges in their own lives by leaning into their Jewish practice. What do you lean into? Facebook? Instagram? No solace to be found there, I assure you.

Third, consider how your time has been stolen from you. Not only because the average American adult spends three hours a day staring at a smartphone screen, and the average teen seven hours, but also because work has invaded all the corners of our lives, and the endless options available to us for all kinds of wonderful activities push the possibility for holy, reflective moments off our radar.

Finally, consider how we prize our independence over all else, and how that has gone a long way toward creating a society in which we are all looking out for Number One. I sometimes feel that we have lost the sense of collective, that we can actually accomplish more when we work together to build a better society. Rebuilding that interconnected sense begins with doing things together across racial, ethnic, religious, and social lines – breaking bread, stepping forward to volunteer together, even just speaking with people who are unlike you.

Why should you want to be holy? Because a holy life is one which will make your life better as an individual and will make your neighborhood and your world better for all of us.

So, straight outta Vayiqra chapter 19, here is an easy three-step guide to living a holy life:

  1. Set aside sacred time.

19:30: אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמֹ֔רוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁ֖י תִּירָ֑אוּ. Keep my holy Sabbaths and venerate my holy sanctuary, says God. 

We should read this expansively: by keeping Shabbat and venerating the miqdash, usually understood to be the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, we should understand that we must carve out holy moments in our lives. Now, let’s face it: it’s not so easy to set aside the holy time of Shabbat and holidays to be together with your family and your people and to gather in sacred fellowship with other Jews in our sacred spaces. Our time and by extension, our attention, are precious commodities in high demand; our lives are impossibly crowded with stuff, aided and abetted by the landscape of the Information Age.

Ladies and gentlemen, I shut down all my wired and wireless connections from sundown on Friday evening until dark on Saturday night. I do not spend money. I do not travel anywhere that I cannot get to on foot. I spend quality time with family – meals and games and lounging around, and I most assuredly get more and better sleep in those 25 hours than during the rest of the week.

And you can do that too. Really, you need it. You need the separation from the cut-and-thrust of daily interaction, from the likes and the retweets and your to-do list and schedules and commerce. You will make your life more holy and your weekday more productive if you shut down and spend quality time for those 25 hours as well. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called Shabbat “a palace in time.” It is there for you to enter and to enjoy, and to raise the bar of holiness in your life. This is how we sanctify time rather than idolize things, and that is Step 1.

  1. Remember the other.

There are so many mitzvot here in chapter 19 that speak to this idea. Just a few:

19:18 וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ Love your neighbor as yourself.

19:16 לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

19:14 לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל Do not curse the deaf, or put an obstacle before the blind.

The essence of living a holy life is to remember that you are not an independent operator, that you function in cooperation with all the others around you, and that each of us contains a spark of the Divine. We honor and elevate that spark when we remember to love our neighbor, when we respect each and every person around us by listening, by trying to appreciate their position, and by greeting everybody with a cheerful countenance. We create a better environment for all when we seek to understand rather than simply dismiss, or God forbid insult, those with whom we disagree. And we bring honor back onto ourselves when we model that behavior for our children and our friends as well as the folks with whom we do not get along.

The Torah wants us to see the humanity, the Divine spark of the other, and seek to connect. It is up to us to raise the bar of holiness in all the ways we interact with the folks around us. Remember the other; that is step 2.

  1. Give.

Arguably the most essential mitzvot in Jewish life, the ones which the Talmud tells us explicitly that you must instruct one who joins our faith to know, are those that require us to set aside some of the produce from our fields to give to those in need. Four of them appear in this Holiness code (19:9-10):

וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט׃ וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. 

Of course, who in Squirrel Hill has a field, or harvests in this way? It is, rather, up to us to apply the spirit of these laws to how we live today, to remember that when we have plenty, we have to remember those who do not, and to give. 

But not only our money. What is our most precious commodity? Our time. Giving generously of your time fulfills these mitzvot as well. Find a charity that needs you; I’m happy to find you some volunteer work here at Beth Shalom. Spending time with others while you perform a mitzvah, in both the halakhic and the idiomatic sense, is a great way to be holy. Give; that is step 3.

***

This is the formula for holiness. It ain’t rocket science, as they say, but it is essential to living a complete life, and for using the traditional Jewish framework to improve yourself and your world. 

  • Set aside sacred time. 
  • Remember the other. 
  • Give. 

Three simple steps for living a holy life, and God knows this world could benefit from a whole lot more qedushah, more holiness. Please come talk to me if you need help in doing so; I would be honored to help you along your journey.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/7/2022.)

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What Matters Most – Vayhi 5781

In the flurry of year-end stories (that is, the secular year; our year of 5781 began back in Tishrei, in the fall), a whimsical bit of news floated out of my radio a few days ago, about a curious clock tower in Scotland. The clock in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, which looms over the Waverley train station, traditionally runs three minutes fast, in an apparent effort to help people get to their trains on time. But every year, on December 31st, they set the clock back three minutes so that it will chime midnight at the appropriate time, and then set it forward again three minutes. 

The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland

This year, the management decided not to set the clock back, so that it would chime three minutes early, thus making 2020 apparently three minutes shorter than a usual year. And, as we all know, the past year was hardly “usual.”

As silly as this story is, I must say that there is something heartening about it. It speaks about the optimism we have for the future. Three fewer minutes of 2020, three extra minutes appended to 2021. (Of course, for 5781, it’s a wash.) 

But given how precious our time is, how valuable the holy potential of every moment, those three minutes remind us, in some sense, to keep our wits about us as we remember what matters most: life.

Over my “stay-cation” during the last two weeks, I was able to tune into another Conservative synagogue’s streamed Shabbat services. I tried for a second one, but although I set up Zoom before Shabbat, somehow I got booted off after Kabbalat Shabbat, and so was not able to see Shabbat morning – perhaps you have experienced this yourself. (The Conservative movement’s teshuvah / rabbinic guidance on the use of online services during the pandemic actually mandates that one set up the computer before Shabbat and minimize touching it during Shabbat or Yom Tov, but of course that brings with it the inevitable technological pitfalls.)

But the services that I did see, from one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America, was a highly-polished production, with musicians and a choir and multiple camera shots and a director and technical staff and two rabbis and a cantor and a handful of pre-arranged visitors participating from home and the whole nine cubits. The number of households streaming peaked out at over 1,100.

My reaction to such a production was not necessarily to daven, but to sit back in awe of the level of logistical sophistication, and, of course, money, required to make that happen. And of course I could not help but to compare it to our own online services, which, by comparison, are still in the electronic Bronze Age.

But I must say that I’m happy with what we are doing, even though it’s not perfect, or even close to approximating what a synagogue service should feel like. And, by the way, the vast majority of respondents to our High Holiday survey also indicated that they were pleased with those services. Of course, I know that everybody right now is giving kaf zekhut, that is, tipping the scales in our favor given the circumstances (see Pirqei Avot 1:6). 

We all know that this is an insufficient substitute for actual synagogue services, and we all look forward to the time (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days) we will be able to gather again for tefillah / prayer, for kiddush, for schmoozing, for JJEP and meetings and social gatherings and Hod veHadar and learning together and yes, even shiv’ah and for all the communal things that we do.

But right now, we are all in exile. (Ironic, considering that most of us are spending a lot more time at home…)

The widely-anticipated post-holiday virus surge is about to take off; the vaccine distribution is plodding along, although I am very pleased to see that many of our members who work in the medical field have already received it, and there is light at the end of what looks like a very long tunnel. But we are not there yet, even though we can see the Promised Land from the depths of Egypt: Min hametzar qarati Yah; from the narrow place we continue to call out to God (Psalm 118:1).

Parashat Vayhi reminds us that Ya’aqov / Jacob ends his life in exile! So too Yosef. But they both live, and that is what matters most. The parashah opens with:

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה

Vayhi Ya’aqov be-eretz mitzrayim sheva esreh shanah

Ya’aqov lived in Egypt for 17 years.

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived. The text does not say, Ya’aqov suffered, or Ya’aqov was miserable and depressed because he was in exile. It just says, he lived. OK, so perhaps he was grateful to be alive, having escaped the famine in Israel and having been ultimately rescued by his estranged son Yosef, whom he thought had been killed by a wild beast years before. Maybe he was not miserable and depressed because he was surrounded by his large and prolific family, and they lived freely and happily with the blessing of the good Pharaoh.

We do not know. But embedded in that word, vayhi, packed into a common grammatical form, is a suggestion of both past and future. Known to grammarians as the “vav consecutive,” it is a phenomenon of Biblical Hebrew that in many circumstances, the letter vav in front of a verb reverses the mood: perfect becomes imperfect; imperfect (as we have here) becomes perfect. 

(It is not entirely accurate to say that this is a question of past vs. future. While Biblical Hebrew does have past, present and future contexts, the verbs do not really have “tense” the way that Modern Hebrew does. But that’s a grammar lesson for another day.)

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived: The vav consecutive turns the imperfect, what has not yet been completed, into the perfect, what is complete. The imperfect form without the vav consecutive, yehi, should be literally understood as “he has not completed living.” With the vav in front of it, it reads, vayhi: he completed living. He lived. 

And yet, the incomplete is incorporated into the complete. He lived, and he will yet live. Embedded in the past is the future. A contradiction, perhaps.

Ya’aqov must have known that his future was found in his past. He was, after all, renamed Yisrael, the name later applied to the land promised to him and his parents and grandparents. He must have understood that, although he lived the end of his life and died in exile, that his children and grandchildren would return. He lived, and yet he will live.

And so too the contradiction in our current moment: Vaccines are being administered, and yet the virus is spiking. The end of the worldwide pandemic is near, but we must continue wearing masks and social distancing and refraining from gathering. Normal living is on the horizon, but the current anxiety is not yet abated.

We have lived, and we will live. And we will do the best we can under these circumstances. We will judge 2020 – ourselves, our friends and family, our institutions – with kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt. We will mourn those whom we have lost, and who we will lose, and those of us who are still safe and healthy will be grateful for our lives.

Exile will come to an end. We will come forth from Egypt. And we will continue to sanctify every moment, every three-minute increment of holiness. 

I am not one for secular New Years’ resolutions. We made our resolutions back at the beginning of Tishrei, the resolution to recommit to our tradition, to improve ourselves, our behavior, our relationships and our world through the framework of halakhah, the spiritual fulfillment of Torah. One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance, because those are days on which we remember that the framework of Torah is our Etz Hayyim, the Tree that brings us life.

But if I were, I would resolve right now to keep living: to remember family and friends and to be in touch with them, to tell them how much you love and appreciate them. To savor every minute as best we can. To not succumb to the feelings of hopelessness or anxiety that many of us surely feel. To look to the future, even as we grieve for what, and who, we have lost. Here is an action item: make it a point to reach out to a distant friend every day. We are all in this together, and everybody is grateful for the call.

That is, perhaps what distinguishes our tradition from those cultures that celebrate the secular new year. A new year is not merely an excuse to party with abandon; it is an opportunity to look back and forward, to acknowledge and be grateful that we are still here, to remember that our history has its high and low points, and that the coming year will surely include both.

We the Jews have survived far greater challenges than this; we have been through exile and dispersion, persecution and genocide. We can surely manage a few more months of wearing masks and staying away from each other. And the way that we have always done that is to remember what matters most: life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2021.)