Shabbat VaYakhel: Holiness and Desecration

Last week our parashat hashavua related a low moment for our people, in which our lack of trust in each other and lack of commitment to our values led to what is called in Jewish tradition hillul haShem, the desecration of the Name of G*d. This is a much-misunderstood term which has not lost its resonance today, unfortunately, in light of current events both nationally and closer to home.
Opposite the concept of hillul, desecration, is that of kiddush HaShem, sanctifying the Name. It may be simply understood as the defiance of hillul HaShem,  as we learn in the Megillat Ester which we will soon read in observance of Purim. In the Persian palace, the struggle of our people to hold on to their Jewish identity and culture, writ small, is reflected in Mordecai advice to Ester to hide her Jewishness, at first. Yet when a threat arose to all Jews, to hide would have been a betrayal of her people, an act tantamount to hillul HaShem, desecrating the Name, because (1) it would be a public repudiation of her loyalty to the Jewish covenant and the G*d it celebrates, and (2) in this way it would be an undermining psychological blow to all those who were struggling to hold out against similar oppressive pressure, whether it was to give up Shabbat or Kashrut, or to let the majority culture erase our Jewish identity in smaller, less obvious ways that nevertheless take their toll over time. When it is desecration to hide, is is sanctification to come out for the sake of what we owe each other in a meaningful covenant community.
Hillul haShem, then, is not about insulting G*d directly; the damage is in the way it weakens the connections between us, which is, we are taught, the way we come to know the G*d who brought us out of Egypt. The Golden Calf (or bull, really) is only the symptom. The problem is that you and I aren’t supporting each other, and that as a result, we’ve lost our way.
The Tzanzer Rebbe used to tell this tale: a person lost in a deep dark forest searched desperately for a way out. Coming upon another person, the first sighed in relief, “ah, I’m saved! please show me the way out of this forest.” But the other replied, “Friend, I too am lost. Like you, I can only show you the ways I have tried that have failed. Let us join hands and search for the way together.”
The word hillul, desecration, recalls the word hallal, “emptiness.” It speaks of that which, rather than hallowing (kiddush) actually hollows out the meaning from what we do. Kiddush HaShem is the refusal to let our principles be devalued, whether because of convenience, peer pressure, or even fear. The sanctification of the Name can be a quiet act such as entering a prayer space quietly, or stopping until the Shema has been recited in full; or it can (G*d forbid) be an overt act of defiance. Such acts include the women who refused to give their gold earrings for the making of the calf in last week’s parashah, or refusing to go along because it’s uncomfortable to be outed as the only Jew in a room, or even the act of standing firm against persecution, refusing to deny oneself or one’s identity (only permissible when hiding is either impossible or publicly demoralizing, as in the example of Esther).
This week our parashah brings the promise that hillul can be repaired, although not erased.  Some days don’t feel like it, but even as we are taught that every day brings opportunities to recognize and recite so many blessings in our lives, so also a closer and more thoughtful look might reveal small but significant daily opportunities for us to choose between adding to the holy in the world or detracting from it by small acts and words. May we all become more aware of the empty spaces in our lives, and how acts of connection have the power to sanctify the life we share.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Make It Holy

On this Shabbat we will do what we always do, and what Jews in all times and circumstances have done: we will carry on with that which makes our lives meaningful. We will celebrate Shabbat with family of origin and family of choice, and with friends both old, and those newly moved to be with us. We will share a meal and we will immerse ourselves in study and prayer, and in doing so together we will defy the evil we have known.
Jews don’t celebrate martyrdom; our tradition teaches that we should do all we can to live. But when we are killed because we are Jews, in the middle of practicing the rituals that give our Jewish identity meaning, our people recognizes this as kiddush HaShem, a way of making G*d’s name holy in the world. This is the way in which our people names the deaths of innocents in the Shoah and in the massacres, pogroms and inquisitions of our past: no one wants to die in this way, no one seeks it. But if it comes for us, may it be that we are strengthened in our sense of who we are and may it hold us in those last moments!
That which is holy, then, is that which is worth your death, and your life. As it has been said, if you have nothing worth dying for, you have nothing worth living for. But being able to name that for which you are willing to die is only the first step in living in a way that we call holy. We must also be able to name that for which we are living.
Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading for the week) is Hayye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The Torah text is summing up the life of the first Matriarch of our people. It begins with Sarah’s obituary, announcing that she lived for “seven years and twenty years and one hundred years.” The commentator Rashi suggests that the years of her life are counted this way because she was as innocent at twenty as she had been at seven, and as beautiful at one hundred as she had been at twenty. She created a holy life.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if upon our deaths it could be said of us that we were as innocent of cynicism and despair at twenty as we were at seven, and as beautiful in our being at one hundred as we were at twenty, and at seven?
In these times, we are realizing that there is no safe place, no guarantee, even as we will do all we can as a community and as families and individuals to keep ourselves safe. Anti-Semitism is real. It hasn’t disappeared any more than other forms of intolerance have. How can we maintain our innocence of cynicism and despair even now, when we are afraid for ourselves and our loved ones? How can we keep focused, despite everything, on creating the inner beauty that comes from a life lived in meaning, and with kindness?
For Jews, the Jewish response is found in tzedakah, in two meanings: first, to mark a person’s death by contributing to a cause which reflects that person’s life, and so to fulfill the Psalmist’s phrase tzedakah tatzil mimavet, tzedakah saves from death.” It does not keep us from dying, but it keeps our memory alive and active in the world. Giving tzedakah defies senseless death by declaring the meaning of a life.
The second way to understand the obligation to do tzedakah in memory of someone’s life is that now, in the face of these murders – not only the eleven in the Pittsburgh shul, but also the nine who died in the Charleston church, and the two who were killed in a Kentucky Kroger’s parking lot, and so many others whose lives were blotted out by senseless hate – we must seek to do tzedek, justice. These deaths occurred because of injustice – that of political corruption, of capitalist greed, and of selfish apathy. We must redouble our efforts to pursue justice and to do justice, in small ways and large.
We can’t do it alone. The more your practice of meaning brings you together with others in meaningful ritual moments, the stronger and more effective you, and we, will be.
Start right now by being kinder to others, and to yourself. Keep your heart open to the pain of empathy, lest we cease to empathize. Stay far from those who invite you to despair, lest you succumb. Come out of your fear and share Shabbat, and the holy moments of every day, with others.
Thus may we all come to know that life is not about simply living. Life becomes holy when we use it to build a life of purpose and of meaning. Whenever it is that you and I and all of us are dead, may others have been lifted up by the way we lived, and may they clearly see the values we meant to live by.
We are in mourning.
We will grieve our dead.
We will not give up our vision for a humanity united in peace.
Hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.