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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Parshat Kedoshim (belated): Finding Holiness Beyond the Ordinary

I must apologize for not writing a commentary for the past two weeks.  Between Passover and other things happening, I just let the two weeks stop by.  However, I feel that this past Shabbat’s parashah/portion from the Torah is significant enough that I did not want to let this opportunity pass.

This past Shabbat we read from Parshat Kedoshim (Vayikra/Leviticus).  The word kedoshim means holiness, and this parashah contains within it the Holiness Code.  This code is physically and spiritually at the center of the Torah and represents the central principles guiding the formation of the new people of Israel.  Though we may take issue today with some of the prohibitions, including that against homosexuality (which is actually more complex than I can discuss right now), the main principle of the parashah  This is encapsulated in the final verse of the chapter: “Love your fellow human being (or neighbor) as yourself. I am the Eternal your God”  is still central to Judaism and to being part of any community.

However, rather than focusing on that verse, which gets so much attention, I would like to focus on the verse 4 of chapter 19: “do not turn to idols.”  I would specifically like to look at a commentary by the Degel Machane Ephraim, a Hassidic commentator who was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism:

“Do not turn to idols.” Our sages interpreted this to mean, “Do not turn to that which you conceive in your own minds” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 149a). We can understand this according to the teaching of my grandfather (the Baal Shem Tov) regarding the verse, “that you turn away and worship other gods” (Deuteronomy 11:16). He interpreted [this verse] thus: “’that you turn away’ – as soon as you turn your attention away from cleaving to the Holy One – ‘you will worship other gods’ – it is as if you have become an idolater.” Although his teaching is very deep, my feeble explanation is this: Anyone who serves God in all his ways, seeking to fulfill the injunction “know God in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6), will do everything mindfully. Eating, drinking, sleeping, engaging in conversation in order to bring others closer to God, or to help dispel their sadness, or to help them in their business to sustain them so that they may devote more time to serving God – if even these (worldly) activities are done mindfully, then they also constitute divine service.

First of all, what struck me was this great scholar admitted his own limited ability to understand the depths of Torah.  Translated as “feeble explanation,” what he is saying is that his explanation of his grandfather’s understanding of the verse is limited by his own intellect.  How true that is for all of us.  Though I would hesitate to use a pejorative such as “feeble,” we must each remember that as much as we try to understand the Torah, we each have our own limited understand.  My understanding will certainly differ, even if only subtly, from another’s and so on.  Yet, if we listen not only to our understanding, but to those of others – no matter how much they may be at odds with our own – we may eventually have a more holistic and complete understanding of the text.

That said, what are the Baal Shem Tov and his grandson teaching us?  Simply put, whenever we turn our hearts or our intentions to anything other than God we are on the path to idolatry.  If we forget that everything we do is in some way meant to connect us to the One, through connecting with others and our world, then we are in danger of focusing only on that which is “created in our own minds.”  In other words, we allow the ego to guide us, rather than God.

The ultimate goal of all forms of religious mysticism, including Kabbalah, upon which Hassidism is based, is to achieve a mystical union with the Divine.  Deveikut, clinging to God, is how one achieves this union.  And Deveikut is achieved by being mindful of everything we do and how it can connect us to the Divine and thereby turn everything into “divine service.”   Even the most seemingly insignificant act can be something that connects us to the Divine, to our Higher Power, to the rest of humanity and the universe.  Conversely, when guided by the ego we can just as easily detach.

We must keep this in mind in terms of our daily activities as well as those things that are less frequent as well.  And this is often the place where many meet their downfall.  Through mindfulness practice, we are taught how to pay attention to the small details, yet when something especially significant or unusual arises we can be thrown because it is so unlike that which we usually experience.  This can cause us to react from a place of strong emotion, which is guided by our own sense of self-protection, or by the ego.    Then we lose ourselves in the rhetoric that is the voice of the ego and start to believe it is the voice of God. When we enter this state, we are in a dangerous place.

I have been thinking about this as I listen to all the political rhetoric filling the airwaves in recent times (and seemingly always).  I do not want to discuss politics per se, as that is not the goal of this blog, but just think of how often something happens or something is said by one person, or a small group, that then causes a strong reaction by another which is countered by a strong reaction of another, and so on.  It sets off a chain reaction of ego-driven responses that only serves to mask the central issue.  That issue is not a partisan one.  It is rather something on which we must all focus, whether political or not.  The central concern is how do we all do our best to serve God with each action.  It is not “how do we serve our own theological or religious bias or belief system?”  For that question is ultimate serving only our individual or group egos and causes further separation.  Rather, the question is how do we do that which is best for society, or humanity, as a whole?  How do we look at all members of society as all part of one greater whole and act accordingly? How do we avoid dividing society and humanity into “us and them” and instead look at everyone as one?  If we focus on these questions, then we are serving God (however one chooses to understand that) and all we do can be seen as Divine service rather than as serving our own ideology or ego.

I wish I had some great wisdom to offer that would help all of us, including leaders of all types of institutions, governments, etc. to behave this way, but my understanding is also limited.  But I can’t help but believe that if all would begin to listen to the multiple voices of the people we will eventually begin to see the whole, the truth, and the essence of existence and of what is the right thing to do.  And then we will act from a place focused on serving the greater good of all.  This service to all, to the whole, is at the heart of serving God and of what it means to be holy.

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