Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: One Step At A Time

“Be holy as HaShem is holy.”

Our days are full of unnerving paradoxes, and this week was no exception:

This week George Floyd’s killer was found guilty of murder despite being a white police officer, AND police with the identical training killed Andrew Brown, Daunte Wright, Ma’khia Bryant and, here in Portland, Robert Delgado.

This week we delighted in so much delightful sunny weather that lifted our spirits and warmed our bodies, AND in Portland Oregon the average historical high temperature for April is 62F degrees.

This week we know many more people who are vaccinated and feel their fears of COVID-19 fading, AND in Multnomah County the number of cases is rising significantly.

One week, and an eternity of experiences, thoughts and feelings.

In times such as ours with so much uncertainty it is good to know that our spiritual tradition can ground us. When we feel overwhelmed with all of it, Judaism brings us back down to the good solid foundation of our souls, what our tradition calls “our Rock and our Redeemer.” The Rock we hold on to for support when we would otherwise be swept away by the currents that buffet our individual selves, and in that clinging find meaning and purpose that Redeems any sense that life is only arbitrary, only overwhelming, only chaos.

The Rock and the Redeemer, or as we might call it the steady support and the answer to fears of meaninglessness, calls to us through the Torah this week: be holy as I am holy. 

Holiness is an ancient Hebrew concept is not some rarified concept of piousness; Judaism doesn’t know what “holier than thou” means. To be holy, for Jews, is to be dedicated to a particular purpose. For us, in these chaotic times, remembering to be holy is a true life saver. 

Being holy literally requires you to narrow down your focus, streamline your life, and do what matters. The Rabbis of the Talmud offer a definition that has yet to be improved:

Rabbi Ḥama, bar Rabbi Ḥanina asked, What is the meaning of that which is written: “After HaShem your God shall you walk?”(Deuteronomy 13:5)?…. is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? Hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire!

Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One: 

*Just as HaShem clothes the naked, as it is written: “HaShem made for the human beings garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. 

*Just as the Holy One visits the sick, as it is written “HaShem appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre [after his circumcision]” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. 

*Just as the Holy One consoles mourners: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. 

*Just as the Holy One buried the dead, as it is written: “Moshe was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.  – BT Sotah 14a

This is not some esoteric ideal but the simple, daily practice of compassion and caring for others. According to the mystical tradition that emerges from Judaism, this ethic of caring for others is the only way to personal salvation – of rescuing our lives from emptiness.

The Sefirat haOmer in which we find ourselves during this time between Pesakh and Shavuot invites us to perceive this simple lesson in the ultimate depths of existence, both of our individual selves and of All the world, and All time.

Today we count 25 days since Passover began; in our daily ‘Omer count, today is the day upon which we are to contemplate the ways in which the characteristic of hod influences the element of netzakh in our lives.

Hod means many things: beauty and awe, gratitude and – strangely – uncertainty. The Gate of Hod offers us the chance to consider how awe and gratitude go with not-knowing: how is this possible, this thing beyond my comprehension? This life, these hands, this soul that lifts and crashes and lifts again?

Netzakh invites us to consider eternity and endurance, and also victory. On this day in the ‘Omer count we consider how hod exists within the world of netzakh. We are asked:

The way you carry your awareness of hod, how does it speak to the netzakh of your experience?  

This day, how will you balance your awareness of the often ephemeral nature of beauty with that which endures?

This day, what gratitude helps you bear uncertainty?

This day, how might our awareness of awe bring light to the terrible ways human beings try to be victorious over ourselves, each other, and the world itself?

Be holy as I am holy says the Source of All to us. If the Rabbis are right, this path is simple: look for the mitzvah that needs doing in your presence, and do it.

This, as the Torah tells us, is “the law of life.” On this Shabbat, consider what practice of holiness brings you closer to the rock and redeemer of your life. Hold on to that, and it will hold you, this week and every week.

shabbat shalom

Parashat Korakh: Uprising Time

Five days before this Erev Shabbat, summer time began with the solstice; the perfect balance of day time and night time.

Erev Shabbat Korakh is the 103rd day of Coronavirus Time. We don’t yet know what that balance will be.

Thursday night Portland saw the thirtieth day of street demonstrations, among the street gatherings that have taken place all over the world against the police violence and brutality that led to the murder of George Floyd and far too many others. 

Jewish tradition has a question of balance for us in this time of uprising. It is this: what is the meaning of your anger? What is the purpose of your actions?

Two thousand years ago in a discussion on our parashat hashavua, the Rabbis distinguished between uprisings such as the one led by Korakh, who gives our parashah its name. Not unlike those of us who harbor differing opinions about the nightly clashes between marching protestors and the overarmed and undertrained Portland police department, our ancestors looked to the motivations of the uprising.

Are those who lead the protest focused on forcing change for the good? Or are they looking only to their own need?

The Rabbis developed a doctrine called makhloket l’shem shamayim, which we might best call “disinterested argument” although that translation certainly lacks the charm of “a dispute for the sake of heaven.” Either way, the question here is whether the one disputing is using their leadership for a noble purpose or a base purpose.

How do we know? Personal motivation cannot be judged as clearly as actions. The Rabbis conclude that the truth will out:

כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם.

אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. 

וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ: 

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; 

But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. 

Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. 

And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. 

Mishnah Pirke Avot 5.17

Our tradition has never condoned destruction for its own sake; neither in the police violence that has terrorized so many Black and Brown lives, nor in the responses of people who feel that they are unheard and dismissed, and so they turn to destruction. But how shall we judge those who decry vandalism of buildings or statues, and have yet to act to demand that Black Lives, human beings, must Matter more?

The commentaries and interpretations of the story of Korakh in our parashah recognize that the slogan of his uprising was a true statement: “all of the people are holy!” That is our banner as well, all of us who condemn murder at the hands of the police state.  Why then is Korakh’s uprising condemned?

Look closely. Korakh was already in power; a Levite of the Kehati family, already as close to the inner circle as possible, with enough access to the corridors of power that one has to wonder what more he could possibly have needed? The Rabbis see that Korakh wasn’t really leading a revolution; he only wanted access to even more power and prestige.

His was not a makhloket l’shem shamayim, and thus it was doomed to fail, even if there had been no spectacular, Biblical method of downfall. The cost of such a selfishly motivated uprising is, poignantly, the same as the good fight well fought: many innocent people are hurt in the process. 

It is inevitable that in a holy cause, a dispute for the sake of heaven, there will be some Korakh types involved. Our ancestors never made the mistake of condemning all uprisings simply because some are misguided, and all are painful. They knew that change does not come easily, and spoke of the hevlei hamashiakh, the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” which are inevitable when something is being born.

May we be clear sighted and compassionate despite the uproar, and learn to discern the holy within the tumult. It is there.