Sunday, May 1, 2011

God is Kadosh - How do we become Kadosh? K'doshim 5771

Columbia/Barnard Hillel Seudah Shlisheet – K’doshim 5771

This week’s parasha of Kedoshim is filled with details of a variety of mitzvot – 51, in fact, according to the count of the Sefer Hahinukh, a medieval Spanish work which enumerates all of the commandments according to the parasha. The verses seem to jump from topic to topic almost at random at a first glance - from bein adam l’haveiro (those between humans and their fellows) and bein adam lamakom (between us and God), and from positive and negative, addressing quite a gamut of topics. This miscellany makes it extremely interesting and important to turn to and examine the opening ‘topic sentence’ which begins Kedoshim.

וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם--קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.

God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire community of the children of Israel and say to them – you shall be k’doshim for I am Kadosh. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

The word Kadosh is usually translated as holy, but we should step back and consider what it means in this context. Is it a general statement, or is it connected directly to the commandments which follow? Is one Kadosh simply because he or she performs (or does not do) certain actions, or is it a more general mindset. I would like to examine a few medieval and modern commentators to explore just how deep this simple and essential phrase can be.

The eleventh century French commentator Rashi, basing himself on the fifth century Palestinian midrash Vayikra Rabbah, states quite clearly קדושים תהיו- פרושים תהיו – “You shall be holy-- you shall be separate,” and explains that this means to be separate from the sins and impurities outlined in the Torah. For Rashi, being Kadosh is directly linked to the performance and fulfillment of mitzvot, and seems to be an objective appellation. Interestingly, Rashi’s comment does not seem to directly address the meaning of God being Kadosh.

Ramban, thirteenth century commentator and mystic from Spain and the Land of Israel, begins by citing Rashi’s statement of kadosh being separate, but takes it further. He writes that just as God is distinct and separate, so too must we be deliberate in our actions and be separate. He takes issue with Rashi’s evaluation of one’s kadosh status – Ramban cleverly notes that one can keep kosher and be a glutton; a man could observe the letter of the Torah and be irresponsible in taking many wives – those who are clever will find a way to be נבל ברשות התורה, naughty within the guidelines of the Torah. Thus, the command to be kadosh and even the more specific mitzvoth are only outlines – one must continually strive and struggle to find the proper path and person has to do in his or her own way.

In his usual deep and poetic manner, twentieth century European and American Jewish thinker activist and JTS professor Abraham Joshua Heschel gave his own definition of holiness in an essay entitled “An Analysis of Piety.” He seems to begin where Ramban picks up, and beautifully explains how being kadosh is a mindset attainable by all who strive to live a Godly life, independent of their background or intellectual ability. Without citing our parasha directly, heschel engages directly with the question posed by our parasha – how can one become holy in the same way as God?

The pious man is possessed by his awareness of the presence and nearness of God. Everywhere and at all times he lives as in His sight, whether he remains always heedful of His proximity or not. He feels embraced by God’s mercy as by a vast encircling space. Awareness of God is as close to him as the throbbing of his own heart, often deep and calm, but at times overwhelming, intoxicating, setting the soul afire. The momentous reality of God stands there as peace, power, and endless tranquility, as an inexhaustible source of help, as boundless compassion, as an open gate awaiting prayer. It sometimes happens that the life of a pious man becomes so involved in God that his heart overflows as though it were a cup in the hand of God. This presence of God is not like the proximity of a mountain or the vicinity of an ocean, the view of which one may relinquish by closing the eyes or removing from the place. Rather is this convergence with God unavoidable, inescapable; like air in space it is always being breathed in, even though one is not at all times aware of continuous respiration.

To dwell upon those things that are stepping-stones on the path to the holy, to be preoccupied with the great and wondrous vision of His presence, does not necessarily mean an avoidance of the common ways of life, or involve losing sight of worldly beauty or profane values. Piety’s love of the Creator does not exclude love of the creation, but it does involve a specific approach to all values. Between man and world stands God. He is before all things, and all values are looked at through Him. [1]

As I prepare to graduate – but maybe not quite fully ‘separate myself’ from this community, I hope we can all consider how we will find our own paths towards being k’doshim as both individual and a community. How do we relate to others, friends, visitors, newcomers and strangers? How do we balance between different obligations? The words and ideas of Torah are wonderful beginnings and guidelines, but we should also consider the views of Ramban and Heschel, that these are not only ends to themselves but means to greater exploration and growth as Jews, as humans, and as God’s creations.

The word k’doshim is notably in the plural, and is a reminder that the journey towards greater awareness and holiness may be a personal one at times, but is never solitary. I would like to thank each of you as individuals and a community for being such a part of my life for the past four years. I hope that we continue to strive for greater heights of respect and holiness in the years to come.

Shabbat Shalom and Todah Rabbah.

[1]Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. p. 310