Parshat Kedoshim

By Larry Herman, May 6, 2017
Holiness and Community

Shabbat Shalom.

קְדשִׁים תִּֽהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

This is the introduction to Parshat Kedoshim, when God instructs Moses,

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: YOU shall be holy, for I, Adonai YOUR God, am holy

Now my Hebrew isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to realize that here, as in many places in the Torah and the rest of the Tanach, the translation doesn’t do justice to the power, or even the pshat or simple meaning, of the original.

English lacks the distinction between the singular and plural forms of the pronoun YOU. It also lacks the specifically plural forms of verbs and adjectives. In the seven words of God’s initial instruction there are three words addressing the entire community, קְדשִׁים, תִּֽהְיוּ, and אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם, which make it clear that this instruction to be holy is for the community as a whole and not for the individual members of the community.

Older translations might have helped a bit with all their, Thou, Thee, Thy, Thine and Ye’s. So the King James translation reads:

YE shall be holy: for I the Lord Your God am holy

Now, if I still lived in South Carolina – more on that in a bit – I might rather translate it as:

Y’all be holies, for holy am I, Adonai, Y’all’s God.

There’s no further mention of holiness in Chapter 19. What follows in the next 35 verses is something akin to the Greatest Hits of the commandments. They contain 44 commandments, by my count, of which:

  • 25 are addressed in the plural while 19 are addressed to individuals.
  • 26 are ethical commandments, of which, 11 are addressed the community as a whole and 15 are addressed to individuals.
  • 18 are ritual commandments, of which 13 are addressed to the community as a whole, and only 5 are addressed to individuals

I’m sure that there are good explanations for these distinctions, and some of you will certainly enlighten me during Kiddush, if not before.

Chapter 19 also includes 15 reminders that Adonai is God, 14 of them interspersed with the various commandments. Of these, 7 are in the form of

אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם.

I am Adonai YOUR – read that as “Y’all’s” – God.

Seven other reminders are in the simple form of:

אֲנִי יְהוָֹה.

I am Adonai.

Only in verse 14 is the reminder specifically addressed to the individual.

לֹֽא־תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹֽה:

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You – THOU, the individual – shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

What to make of all this? If it’s so important for us to be holy as a community, why all the confusion about commandments that apply to the individual and those that apply to the community. Do we have to fulfill these commandments to be holy? If so, as individuals, as a community, or both? I think I know the answer, but first, I want to explain how I have come to that answer.

Today is the anniversary of my bar mitzvah. I shared a bar mitzvah with Marshall Gordon at Beth Shalom in Oak Park Michigan. Marshall’s father was the president of the shul so Marshall got a bit more of the spotlight. But I had my share. My father worked at the Detroit Free Press and arranged for the famous, at least in Detroit, photo-journalist, Tony Spina, to shoot pictures of my bar mitzvah preparations and then publish them in the Sunday Rotogravure. That’s what we used to call the magazine that came with the Sunday paper.

Oak Park was a great mostly Jewish community and Beth Shalom was a wonderful Conservative shul with a good afternoon Hebrew school and a great rabbi. Mordecai Halpern, z’l, a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan, was the first of many rabbis and teachers who have influenced me as a Jew. But it wasn’t until many years later that I actually read Parshat Kedoshim and decided that it was one of my favorite torah portions. Especially Chapter 19. Chapter 20, not so much.

Recently, I looked it up and found out that my bar mitzvah should have been the previous week, the double parsha of Tazria-Metsorah. To tell you the truth, I’m really happy that I ended up not getting afflicted with Tazria-Metsorah. But I had a long way to go before I would really come to appreciate Parshat Kedoshim.

Diane and I spent two years in Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, in West Africa in the mid-seventies. It was one of the two most transformative experiences of our lives. Ouagadougou, the capital, was a city without a Jewish Community of any kind, and pretty much a city without Jews. There were a few Jewish Peace Corps volunteers and I’m sure that there were a few Jews among the international community. For the first time we were forced to confront how to be Jewish in the absence of Jewish community. What we did we mostly did for ourselves. Having arrived with only our backpacks, we had Shabbat candle sticks made by the local bronze artist. We learned to bake matzah by ourselves. We did have the benefit of being able to buy challot for our Shabbat dinners from Charlie, the Jewish Moonie, whose recipe Diane still occasionally uses to this day. Professionally, culturally and in terms of our world view, Upper Volta laid the ground work for the people we are today. Jewishly, it taught us that we need community, and that if it did not exist, we somehow had to find a way to create it ourselves.

When we moved to Columbia, South Carolina, Jewish community entered our lives again. Beth Shalom was a traditional but not very observant southern congregation led by a European Orthodox Rabbi, Edward Kendal. We formed a havurah with some other young adults and helped each other learn and practice Judaism in a way that was meaningful for us. The Jewish Catalog was a big help. We were learning about community building. There were a few sparks of holiness there. But we were mainly focused on our own lives, our careers, and starting our family. We were not fully ready for the holiness of community to inspire us, and perhaps the community was not quite strong enough to inspire us in that way.

In the early eighties, we moved to Gambier Ohio, sixty miles from Columbus. We lived on the campus of Kenyon College which had a number of Jewish faculty and students. Services were held in the basement of the College’s Church of the Holy Spirit. The basement was drafty but not all that holy, and so we soon moved the services to the more uplifting Philomathesian Hall.

By then, we were better prepared for building community. And the Jews of Gambier were responsive. We led services and organized holiday celebrations, represented the Jewish community at College functions, and ran the College’s community Seder. During the ten years that we were there, that community grew and became more cohesive, especially after the arrival of Rabbi Leonard Gordon and his wife Lori Lefkowitz. But we still had to travel to Columbus and Tifereth Israel for Shabbat morning and holiday services, and to enroll our oldest son, Reuven, in their Sunday school. We were still struggling to find the holiness of Jewish community.

Our second transformative experience was our Sabbatical year in Jerusalem. It transformed us Jewishly, and that was due entirely to community. Not the macro-community of Israeli Jews, but the local micro-community in which we lived and learned. The Masorti Kehilat Moreshet Avraham, and a few families served as models of what rich and fulfilling Jewish life could be like. Our childhood friend Maureen Stahl and her husband Rabbi Marvin Richardson, z’l, were guides and mentors, as was the family of Noam and Marcella Zion. At Moreshet Avraham we benefitted from the teaching and leadership of Rabbis David Golinkin, Reuven Hammer and Benji Segal, and from many others who became life-long friends. But more important than any formal teaching and guidance was the modeling that living in a rich community of knowledgeable, thoughtful, and committed Jews did to inspire us. It wasn’t that we became more aware of and committed to mitzvot, as much as the fact that we were enveloped by a community of people who shared practices and values that gave their lives, and ours, meaning and a sense of specialness. Many of these people were and are surely Tzadikim, but as a community they were definitely Kedoshim, holy in the sense of being special.

When we returned to the States we wanted to find such a community. As much as we loved Gambier and our life and friends in rural Ohio, we decided to move to Columbus to find it. We sent our children to the community Jewish Day School, Torah Academy, whose faculty and families quickly and warmly welcomed us. We ended up joining an Orthodox shul, Agudas Achim, where again we were warmly embraced and found teachers, models and mentors, including Rabbi Alan Ciner. Now our community included the Torah Academy, Tifereth Israel, Agudas Achim, and our Kenyon community. We continued to grow as Jews, mainly because of these overlapping communities.

Our decision to make aliyah was a difficult one, as we loved our community in Columbus. But we knew that we also had a special community waiting for us in Jerusalem. In our years there we became members, participants and even leaders in Kehilat Moreshet Avraham. We had many years benefitting from and contributing to that holy community.

As many of you know, Diane and I ended up in Mozambique, leading a small and interesting Jewish community there for most of 16 years. Of all of the Jewish communities in which we lived, it was the least able to provide us with knowledge, instruction, and examples of Jewish life. The Jewish Community of Mozambique has existed since the end of the nineteenth century. It had a beautiful – although at the time, dilapidated – synagogue, and just a handful of people who used it. It was incumbent on us to provide the modeling, mentoring and instruction to a diverse group of people who had very limited Jewish backgrounds and understanding.

We were ready.

Over time the Jews of Mozambique coalesced into a true community and ended up supporting us even as we provided them with learning and leadership. By the time we left last summer, the Jewish Community of Mozambique had formally reorganized into Honen Dalim, restored the shul building, and provided maintenance and security for the historic Jewish cemetery.

More importantly, services were being held Shabbat evening and morning, and on Sunday mornings. Holidays were celebrated, the Torah was read regularly, and the community came together for life-cycle events including bnei mitzvah, a wedding, and supporting mourners.

The mourners included myself and Diane when we each lost our father. For us, that community was never as important, as special and as holy as when they stood with us and responded while we recited the mourners’ Kaddish.

When the time came to leave Mozambique we once again faced a difficult decision. Return to our home, life and community that we loved in Jerusalem, or move to Los Angeles to be closer to our children and families. Diane did the hard work, researching the shuls and neighborhoods of Los Angeles and determining that the Library Minyan and Pico Robertson was the place for us. She was right, of course.

We once again found ourselves in the midst of a community that could nourish us, spiritually, intellectually, and culturally. Unlike our lives in Ouagadougou, Gambier and Mozambique, we don’t have to be the ones to make community for ourselves and others. As in Oak Park, Columbia, Columbus and Jerusalem, we feel uplifted community. And to the extent that our abilities permit, we hope to contribute to the holiness of the community.

I don’t think that we would be the people or Jews that we are today had we not had the challenges and opportunities to try to build stronger communities where they were weak. We might have been more learned and capable Jews had we lived our entire lives in places like Oak Park, Columbus, Jerusalem, and Los Angeles. But we never would have appreciated in the same way what makes a community holy.

קְדשִׁים תִּֽהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

So now I think I know the answer to the question of whether we need to fulfill the commandments in order to be holy. The commandments in this parsha and in the rest of the Torah are not prerequisites for holiness. Rather, we need to be part of a holy community that supports and inspires us to fulfill the commandments. Holiness is not an individual quality that follows out of one’s actions. It is, instead, a collective state that comes about when we join together to create an environment in which we can grow as spiritual and ethical Jews. And that makes us all better people, better Jews, and if we are fortunate, a bit holy.

Shabbat Shalom

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