Sunday, April 29, 2012

Parashat HaShavua – Acherei Mot-Kedoshim

            Kedoshim contains many important often quoted verses. You’ve probably heard Jews and non-Jews alike reference “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (19:16), “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (19:17), and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). According to the Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Chiyya taught that the parasha opens with G-d telling Moses to “speak to the whole Israelite community,” because this parasha contains the most important parts of the whole Torah and needs to be presented to the whole community at once. This parasha is essentially a reiteration and expansive explanation of the Ten Commandments, a list of commandments for how to conduct ourselves, mostly to do with treating other people nicely. As Hillel says, the whole of the Torah can be summed up as, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Hillel must have loved Parashat Kedoshim as much as I do.
            As Reform Jews, we stress these verses even more than all the other Jews and non-Jews who you’ve heard quote them. Reform Judaism places a special focus on Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – and the concept of B’Tzelem Elohim – we are all made in the image of G-d. The best way to repair to world is step by step, throwing one starfish back into the ocean at a time [I assume by now everyone knows the story of the starfish], being fair in business, treating people with kindness, pursuing justice whenever and wherever needed. Not some grandiose fix to all the world’s problems, but with each individual interaction, as proscribed by Kedoshim.
            Now, I love Tikkun Olam, and could easily talk about what it means to not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor until the cows come home. But you can also hear that message from about a million other sources. There’s another message in Kedoshim that often gets overlooked. Another message that is a little deeper into the text, that we forget needs to be addressed. And that is, in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you have to love yourself.
            I remember one time in high school, I was talking to another student about Amnesty or some such high school club devoted to repairing the world. This student was also religious, which is not terribly common among 16-year-olds. Being Christian, he didn’t talk explicitly about Parashat Kedoshim, but he did say something about the Old Testament telling us not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, and how it’s our jobs to stand up for what’s right. Feeling excited to be talking to someone who actually understood my love for Tikkun Olam and serving HaShem, I said, “Yea! ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy’!” And he stared at me blankly. I didn’t know how to best communicate to him then what that really meant to me, but at this point in my life, I actually think it’s the most important lesson, because it precedes our abilities to fulfill the other lessons of Kedoshim.
             Rabbi Alshich of 16th century Safed said, “The easiest thing is to hide from the world and its follies, seclude oneself in a room, and be a holy hermit. What the Torah desires, however, is that a person should be part and parcel of "all the congregation of the children of Israel"--and be holy.” That you must go out into the world, and learn to love yourself before you can learn to love others, and only by actively loving others are you fulfilling G-d’s commandments. It’s not enough to not do the bad things the Torah tells us not to do. You have to go out and actually do the good things too. And that’s not always easy.
 In fact, it’s rarely easy. Sometimes, there are bullies actively trying to drag you down. Sometimes, it’s just hard, from here. We all just feel bad sometimes. Unholy. Sometimes, life is just plain hard, and you don’t feel like going out of your way to help someone else because you feel crummy and who’s going out of their way to help you?! You have to go out of your own way to help yourself. You have to find the holiness within yourself, given you by G-d. We are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, and so if G-d is holy, so are we. Lev 19:2, the very beginning of Kedoshim explicitly says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your G-d am Holy!” Let that lift you up. Remember, that which is hateful, do not subject yourself to! How can you love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t love yourself?

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