Apr 27, 2011

Parashat Kedoshim 5771: “Intense and Holy”

Parashat Kedoshim 5771: "Intense and Holy" 
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

It is precisely in the intense moments of disagreement that love is tested.

Parashat Acharei Mot begins amidst the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who brought uninvited incense-offerings upon the dedication of the Tabernacle and were themselves devoured by a "fire from God" (Lev. 10:2). With barely a blink, Aaron is now commanded to prepare for the Yom Kippur ritual (Lev. 16), including an incense offering, similar to (and in the exact location of) his son's deaths.

If we are brave enough to enter this excruciating moment, not as detached readers, but as living participants in the narrative, what does this sequence of events do to us? What must it have been like for Aaron, who is, during the Yom Kippur ritual (called the Avodah), our emmisary to God. On this holiest of days, and in the holiest of places, Aaron (the holiest person) enters a moment of the deepest vulnerability for the entire People Israel, let alone for a grieving father. What if something went wrong? And how could he be expected to get it right?

The second of the two Torah Portions for this Shabbat might contain a counterpoint to the burden of the first.

The command "Kedoshim Tihiyu, Be Holy (Lev. 19:2)" has been variously translated as "be distinct (Rashi)", or "be intense (Rabbi Yitz Greenberg)," but what is textually true regardless is the end of the verse, "Ki Kadosh Ani/For I [God] am holy."

To be Kadosh is to be like God. What does this mean? It is clearly impossible for a person to be God, and yet the verse seems to make that very demand. Amplify the challenge through the unfathomable emotions within Aaron in this moment and the question becomes exponentially demanding. Is an encounter with God, an intentional act of resemblance, even desirable in this moment, in a moment of serious pain?

Following this most difficult of questions, we encounter the hardest of the laws enumerated as the recipe for being/becoming Kadosh:

"You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Correct your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am Adonai. (Lev. 19:17-18)"

This is one of the rare occaisions when the Torah legislates emotion. It's not only that I may not act hatefully – I am forbidden from even silent hatred. Additionally, the very next pathway to holiness is one wich defies successful execution: correcting someone else. When is the last time you were corrected by someone else? How did it feel? When was the last time you corrected someone else and it was well-received? How many of us choose to avoid the encounter altogether, given the discomfort of confrontation? As the rabbis of the Talmud observed:

Rabbi Tarfon said, "I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this generation that can accept criticism." Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria responded, "I doubt if there is anyone in this generation that knows how to give criticism." (TB Arachin 16b).

Successful criticism is both near-impossible, and also a mitzvah. Avoidance in the face of tension is not a holy choice.

Perhaps there is a connection between the imperatives to correct and to not hate. If you truly love someone, you feel connected to them. If I witness a dear friend making (what I consider to be) a mistake, what does it mean when I remain silent? I would therefore be willing to let the mistake impact his life, the community, the world, while I remain uninvolved because it's easier. Then I might begin to feel anger and resentment towards him in my heart, violating both the beginning and the end of the verse. Consequently, the following verse might begin to become true as well. Festering resentment in my heart might lead me to lash out in (misplaced) retribution – all because I failed, as the verses end, to "love my fellow-person as myself."

Loving someone means being willing to encounter them without controlling them. Being in love opens me, makes me vulnerable, to criticism, to being encountered and responded to.

If my goal is to be alone, I can afford to ignore these instructions. But through the healthy relationships that demand the occasional sharing of loving criticism, relationships are most real. It takes serious strength to be such a community – bound by the commitment to each other, by the shared aspiration of holiness. It is also the best recipe for family – unconditional love despite (and especially during) passionate dispute.

Aaron's experience is simply incomprehensible. How, in a moment of excrutiating vulnerability, did he manage to even show up? How could he stand to encounter God, to hold an incense pan? How could he hold the conflicting emotions of sadness, anger, duty, love and faith in his heart? We will never know the answers to these questions, and may we never experience anything near as traumatic.

In our individual and communal pursuits of holiness, though, let us never imagine that remaining calm and untouched is the goal. It is unnerving to look someone in the eyes, especially during a moment in which there is a weighty disagreement that divides one person from another. But it is also precisely in that most intense of moments, the unbearable and visceral connection one person can share with another, that alone-ness is vanquished, that community is born.

It is, perhaps, precisely in that moment that we encounter God most directly: in the eyes of another, and through loving enough to be powerful parts of each other's lives.

May we be blessed to experience the demanding vitality of such Jewish communities wherever we are. 

May we dedicate ourselves to building communities worth the intense and holy effort.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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