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Kedoshim: To Love & Be Loved

Kedoshim 5776/14 May 2016

May 16, 2016

This past Thursday Israelis, and Jews around the world celebrated the 68th birthday of the State of Israel, Yom Ha’atzmaut. As I do each year I found myself this week thinking back longingly to the four years that I’ve lived in Israel. It was no surprise, then, that as I contemplated the notion of holiness in this week’s parashah my mind went to spending Shabbat in Israel. After I graduated from high school, I spent a couple of years studying at Yeshivat Hakotel, a religious Zionist yeshivah in the Old City of Jerusalem. For two years I lived and learned overlooking the site upon which both Temples in Jerusalem stood. From our beit midrash, we could see the entire Temple Mount, including the Kotel, which has been a place for prayer and pilgrimage and the focus of our collective yearning throughout the centuries. For me there was a constant, palpable sense that this place was holy. That sense was even greater when Shabbat came.

Preparation for Shabbat began already on Thursday night with mishmar. Each week, the students would stay up into the early hours of the morning learning Torah. On Fridays I would get together with my brother, who was studying in nearby Mevaseret Tzion. I’d go to the mikveh, meditate, shave and put on my Shabbat clothes. Tradition at the yeshivah is that, every Friday with the sounding of the Shabbat siren in Jerusalem, all of the students of the yeshivah would descend the steps to the Kotel together, singing and dancing our way toward Shabbat evening prayer.

Everything about Shabbat felt different, as if we were in an entirely different yeshivah than during the week. I had the honor, in my second year in yeshivah, my shannah bet,to lead the yeshivah-wide singing after dinner. In those late-night Shabbat song sessions I felt a depth of spiritual connectedness, with God and with my fellow buchrim that I’ve rarely experienced since.

This morning’s parashah begins with a mitzvah that frames a central goal of the Torah- the human pursuit of holiness, kedushah. God tells Moses to “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

The Sifra, the halakhic midrash on Leviticus, reads the verse to mean “You shall be set apart” (Sifra, Kedoshim, 1, 1).  The traditional rabbinic interpretation follows the lead of the Sifra that kedushah, holiness stems from being set apart, distinguished for a sacred purpose. Holiness is a quality inherent only in the God. When people, objects, sites, times or activities are set aside for divine service or other special purposes they become sacred, they derive an extrinsic holiness from their relationship with The Holy One. For example, Shabbat becomes a holy day when it is set aside as a day for us to rest, as God rested.

The Torah teaches that holiness can be achieved through perishut, through separations and distinctions, setting Shabbat apart from the rest of the weeks, setting Israel apart from the nations, the priests from the rest of the Israelites. Or as we see in our parsha Kedoshim, in separating species of animals, seed and cloth, and in refraining from forbidden intimate relationships. There is another aspect of holiness in Judaism- the holiness in how we relate to each other, in the sacred bonds we build between ourselves.

When Jews mark sacred time, on Shabbat and festivals, we do so together in community, with our families and friends in our sanctuaries and at our tables, with the prayer of kiddush. When two individuals find wholeness in one another and choose to expand the circle of their self to include the other, the sacred bond forged under the chuppah is called kiddushin. We experience holiness, and we learn to become holy ourselves, through our relationships.

Toward the beginning of the holiness code, we find a mitzvah that explicitly addresses how we relate to one another. It’s one of the most famous mitzvot in the Torah. In fact the great Rabbi Akiva singled this out as the great principle of the Torah- To “love your neighbor (or your ‘fellow’) as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

If we take it to heart, this terse commandment can be a powerful guiding principle in the pursuit of holiness and wholeness in our lives.

What is the nature of the love that the Torah is asking of us? How can the Torah command us to experience the emotion of love anyway? Is it realistic? Do we really have that level of control over our feelings that we can simply turn love on on command? Even if we can do so, it’s very difficult to love all of your fellows the same as you love yourself.

The medieval Spanish commentator Ramban addressed the final point. The verse reads “Ve’ahavta lerei-achah kamochah.” Ramban brings our attention to the anomalous word choice here. To say “Love your fellow as yourself, the verse should have read “ve’ahavta et reiachah kamochah,” using the accusative form rather than the indirect object. “Ve’ahavta le-rei-achah kamochahtranslates most literally as “love to, or toward, your fellow as yourself.” Ramban does not see our verse as a command to will ourselves to experience love for another at any given moment. He understands it as a call to orient ourselves toward the other,  in emotion and action.

A few verses later we encounter another mitzvah related to love: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I the Lord am  your God(Leviticus 19:33-34). As in the command to love your fellow, this command to love the stranger could be translated super-literally as “love to the stranger.”

Love toward the stranger, in emotion and action, for we were strangers. This is a mitzvah to cultivate compassion- to learn to put ourselves in the place of others, even strangers, and to be moved to action in response.

When I worked as a chaplain resident at Einstein we often discussed the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion. Sympathy is feeling sorry for another person’s hurt or pain. When you simply sympathize with another you still leave some emotional distance between you. When you empathize you put yourself in the shoes of the other and relate to their present experience from your own life experience. Compassion takes you a step further. When you have compassion you’re actually experiencing for yourself some of the pain that the other person is experiencing. And once you have allowed yourself to be so moved you are driven to translate that feeling into action on behalf of the other person.  

With practice, we can train ourselves to live with compassion and open hearts. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, the 20th Century Orthodox philosopher and Every positive emotion stems from giving and flows outward from us to others.  He teaches that the root of the Hebrew word love- אהבה (ahavah)– is הב (hav) an Aramaic word meaning “to give.” You might think that love for the other is what opens your heart to give. Rav Dessler says that it is just the opposite-   giving leads to love.[1] 

Many of us spend too much of our lives preoccupied with the desire to be loved. Consciously or not, it can be a driving force, motivating or actions and reactions and consuming lots of emotional energy. Focusing on cultivating love and compassion toward those around us can help us find an equanimity and a sense of self-worth that is not dependent on emotional validation of others. When we make it our mission to love, rather than to be loved we are free to live our lives in the pursuit of what is right and true, even if it is not what is popular.

Hermann Hesse wrote a short story that explored the question of whether it’s better to love or be loved. In his fairy tale, “Augustus,” a pregnant woman is granted a single wish by a wise old man, any wish with the promise that it will come true. Wanting only the best for her son, the woman wishes for her son to be loved by all. And so it is that little Augustus is loved by every person who encounters him. Soon enough, the woman begins to see that the constant adoration is problematic. All the people around Augustus excuse the boy’s misbehaviors. He is spoiled and develops a temper, not learning how to regulate his own emotions. Even his own mother is unable to give him proper discipline and boundaries. By the time he is a young man, he has everything he could want, yet he’s deeply unhappy. The blessing has become a curse. Eventually Augustus learns the source of his misery and asks the old man to reverse the original wish. His new wish is not to be beloved, but rather, to love all. Though he faced more adversity, his heart was wide open, and he was happy.

Of course, giving and receiving love are not in mutual opposition; As the song goes, “Love is something when you give it away – you end up having more.” When we give love authentically we tend to receive love in return. The Torah was given to us in an act of supreme love. By giving us the Torah and the mitzvot, by calling on us to give love to one another, God gifts us with the greatest blessing of love. It is through sharing this love, through giving it away to others, that we become holy. We become kedoshim.

In those holy Friday night song sessions at Yeshivat Hakotel, one of the most moving songs for me was a setting of words from the blessing before the Shema in the morning liturgy- the blessing of love. It contains the words, “…ve-yacheid levaveinu le-ahavau ulyirah et shemechah.” We ask God to unify and open our hearts that we may love and revere God’s name.  That we may love and revere the manifestations of God’s presence in the world, including each human being created in the image of the divine.

The Torah emphasizes that the exhortation to be holy – Kedoshim Tihiyu -was stated before the entire assembly of Israel because we find holiness not in isolation, but in relationship with one another.

My blessing for us this morning is that we may learn to cultivate compassion and love for ourselves and one another. May we find holiness in each encounter.  And as we give love, so may we be loved.

[1] Michtav Me’Eliyahu Volume 1, Kuntrus HaChesed, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s comments on Genesis 22:2- “אשר אהבת – מלשון הב, דהיינו לתת ולהתמסר לזולת, וגם לראות שהזולת יתחבר אליו.”

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