And we're off!

On holy community

The folks at Temple Beth El, my parents' shul, graciously invited me to give the d'var Torah at the service in the Barshop Auditorium this erev Shabbat. This is what I'll be saying from the bimah tonight; if you're going to be davening with us, you might want to skip this post so you can hear the d'var with fresh ears...

When our son Drew was born, we entered a haze of sleep deprivation, joy, and overwhelm. Drew came into the world with a profound case of jetlag. For nine months, he’d been lulled to sleep by my movements during the day and had danced the fandango inside me at night. When he emerged from the womb, his circadian rhythms were backwards. Sleep debt isn’t the only reason we had a tough adjustment to parenthood, but it was a big one.

Thank God for our families -- and also for our friends, who brought us dinner and sent baskets of granola bars for me to snack on, offered home remedies for nursing difficulties, helped to fold our laundry, and dropped by to keep us company. During our annual New Year’s gathering, back when it often took an hour to rock Drew to sleep after each feeding, friends took shifts in the middle of the night to rock Drew so we could rest. Friends subscribed us to Netflix and lent us dvds and offered email advice at all hours of day and night.

In a million ways, our local Jewish community, our CSA community, and our friends in the Berkshires stepped in to lend a hand. So did folks from the geographically-dispersed ALEPH rabbinic program, from Ethan’s global community of thinkers and bloggers, and from my worldwide community of writers and media fans. Whether we’d originally been brought together by geography or by common interests, people from all of these communities helped to sustain us when parenthood was new.

"You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." This instruction is at the heart of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The Hebrew word for "holy" is kadosh, קדש kuf / daled/ shin: this is the root of the word kiddush, the sanctification of wine; kaddish, the prayer which sanctifies the name of God; and kiddushin, the ring ceremony through which one partner in a marriage is sanctified to the other. This root is usually understood to mean separation or withdrawal. Something which is kadosh is set-apart.

Torah uses this word to describe Shabbat, the festivals, and the Jubilee year, all set apart from ordinary time; the Temple, a place set apart for God (and Jerusalem, in which the Temple once stood); the Israelite community, set apart from other communities; and God, who is the ultimate in set-apart. And in this week’s Torah portion, we’re told that this word needs to apply to us, too.

Many religious traditions call their participants to holiness. But Torah doesn't just tell us to be holy as individuals. We're called to be a mamlechet kohanim and a goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and holy nation. Specifically, in this week's portion, it says: k'doshim tiyihu -- "Y'all shall be holy." The injunction is in the plural.

Torah isn't just saying that you should be holy, and you, and you—each one of us finding her own path. Torah says "y'all be holy, now." What does it mean to be holy as a community?

This week's parsha offers some clues. "When y'all reap the harvest of y'all's 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." The responsibility to feed the hungry and make resources available to the foreigner is a communal one. Only after the communal injunction does Torah also address our individual obligations.

"Y'all shall not steal; y'all shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another." And then, speaking to us as individuals, Torah tells us not to defraud one another, withhold the wages of someone in need, insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.

"Y'all should not render unfair decisions,” Torah says, and then instructs us individually not to favor the poor or show deference to the rich. Speaking to us as individuals, God adds v'ahavta l'reacha kamocha, "Love your fellow as yourself."

All of these are part of holiness.

Being holy means caring for the needy, feeding the hungry, and behaving ethically as a community. And on a personal level, it means recognizing that each person is a sovereign being made in the divine image and worthy of love.

I said earlier that one of the meanings of the root kuf/daled/shin is "set apart." Historically we've understood ourselves as a community which is set apart. To some extent that's been our choice. To some extent we've made a virtue of necessity, and when we've been ghettoized we've used that geographical reality to maintain our communal integrity. Much of halakha and minhag, law and custom, is predicated on that kind of insularity.

But today most of us don't live only among other Jews. The communal separation earlier generations took for granted isn’t our norm. We need to find a new understanding of "holy community" which isn't predicated on having a solid wall between "us" and "them."

My teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that the human body can be a useful metaphor here. The body has many organs, and each needs to do its own unique job. The heart needs to be the heart, the liver needs to be the liver. Were the brain to try to do the heart’s job for it, the body would fail.

But each of those organs is also part of the system of the body, and they need to be connected with each other. If the heart stopped speaking to the lungs, or the brain to the kidneys, that too would cause the body to fail.

Each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity. Each religious community needs to be itself, to do the work which only that community can do—but each community also needs to be in dialogue with everyone else.

Jewish tradition sees God as both transcendent -- set-apart and far-away -- and immanent, which means dwelling in creation and in relationship.Torah calls us be holy as God is holy. To me, that means we’re called to be set-apart and also to be connected. We need good boundaries, but we also need for those boundaries to be permeable.

Today most of us live in many communities at once: our religious communities, geographic communities, communities of interest (writers, Buffy fans, cigar afficionadoes...) We make our communities holy by the way we reach out to people in times of celebration and moments of need—whether need for groceries or a new interview suit or hands to hold the baby while weary parents get an hour of rest.

Kedoshim tihiyu: y’all shall be holy. Every year Torah reminds us that God has high expectations, not only of each of us as individuals but of us as a collective. May all of us here tonight be blessed to feel in our hearts and know in our minds that we’re part of a community...and may we find the strength to step up and lend a hand, so that our communities may be strengthened and our capacity for collective holiness be fulfilled.