Friday, May 1, 2015

Planting our own seeds of holiness - D'var Torah - Parashat K'doshim - May 1, 2015

When we think of holiness, we most likely think first about God and faith and religion.   There are holy places - like this Sanctuary.  There are holy days - like the celebration of Passover we completed three weeks ago and the observance of Shavuot which will be upon us in three weeks. And, of course Shabbat is holy as well.
   We call ourselves a holy people and our congregation is a KAHAL KADOSH - a holy community.  
   There are holy acts, which we may confine in our minds to lighting candles, saying kiddush,  reciting a motzi on Shabbat and holidays, or participating in an aliyah to the Torah.
    The Torah reading for this Shabbat, Kedoshim, provides us with a different framework for holiness in our actions that we might not even consider at first.
     A divine declaration in Leviticus Chapter 19 verse 1 sets the tone for this broadening of the scope of the term holiness.  "You shall be holy, for I, your Eternal God, am holy."   It is stated in the plural, KEDOSHIM TIHIYU, but the rules that follow are sometimes in plural, and sometimes in singular.  Either way, each command is directed towards each of the Israelites in the original setting.   And, every proclamation of a  "holy act" in Leviticus 19 is also directed towards each of us.
   We learn from this section of the Torah that the term "holiness" can be applied to respecting our parents and elders, keeping the Sabbath, and not turning anything material into an object of veneration or worship.  
   In this context of holy deeds, we are commanded to provide for people in need, to refrain from spreading rumor, and to refuse to be a mere bystander when a person is being attacked or abused verbally or physically without cause. We are called upon to judge people fairly, no matter whether they are rich or poor, and to be honest in our dealings with all people.  If we want to be holy, we cannot let hatred or disgust towards a fellow community member fester to the point that we will do something drastic that we will regret later.  We are told, instead, to talk to him or her privately and offer gentle feedback that can provide growth and healing.  Keeping grudges and taking revenge for any reason do not fall into the realm of holy behavior.  What follows to end this passage is the command that might encompass all of these acts of holiness: "Love your neighbor as yourself."  
    This passage in the Torah could serve as the basis of a personal inventory of what we do that could be called holy.   Coming to Temple on Shabbat or having Shabbat dinner at home, staying in touch with a parent or grandparent, donating to a food or clothing bank or serving a meal at a soup kitchen, stopping a friend or colleague from playing fast and loose with the truth - all of these things that we might do on a regular basis are actually holy.   And so is any type of consideration and kindness we show to other people - even holding a door open for someone.  Yes, that, too, is holy.  
     The news this week has given us way too many negative reports by which we can infer what to do that would constitute a holy, constructive and positive course of action.  Even when emotions are high, law enforcement officials and protestors have the opportunity to act with restraint, remembering that the people on the other side of the imaginary dividing line are also created in the divine image.   Political officials like the one who pleaded guilty today for making passage over a bridge next to impossible near a very large city on the east coast might take a moment to understand that such a decision to engage in subterfuge and dishonesty will bear dire consequences for months and years to come.    
    You may have heard about the new ads that were cleared through legal action to be featured on buses in New York City. Created by a group sponsored by pro-Israel activist Pamela Geller, the ad declared "Killing Jews is Worship because it draws us close to Allah - that's my Jihad, what's yours?"    This ad parodied an earlier series of ads sponsored by the Council of American-Muslim Relations which defined jihad in what was likely its original meaning - internal struggle towards a resulting personal faith, somewhat like a word that we could translate as "struggle with God."  That word is Yisrael.   On Wednesday of this week, the New York Metropolitan Transit authority banned all political ads from the buses as a response to this attempt at defining Islam from the outside.   Whether we agree or disagree with Geller's intentions, we know how it feels to be defined by others, especially when we hear people calling Jews any number of names that we don’t want to hear or referring to Israel as an "apartheid state."   Leviticus 19 directs us to stop the rumors and move towards more direct learning about our fellow human beings of other faiths. 
   Sometimes an attempt at making a positive statement can have unexpected and far-reaching results.   It was reported this week that, about a year ago, a young Israeli Arab, who lives in northern Israel, wanted to use social networking to convince other Israeli Arabs that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are not some “army of evil” and that its soldiers are not as bloodthirsty as they tend to be portrayed in Arab propaganda films. Instead of hearing back from the Israeli Arab audience he was targeting, he began receiving messages of peace and love from young Arab men and women from across the Arab world.     The messages appear on a facebook page set up by this young man, called "M" in the online article.   One young woman from Saudi Arabia filmed a green Saudi passport in her post. Her voice plays in the background, against a street scene in Jeddah, with a message for the people of Israel: “Good evening. I am a young woman from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. I am a member of one of the better-known tribes of the Hijaz, and I am showing you Darajeh Square, a famous landmark in Jeddah. Id like to send a message of peace and love to Israel and its dear citizens. I know it is surprising that a Saudi Arabian citizen sends a message to the people of Israel, but it is a basic principle of democracy that everyone is free to voice an opinion. I hope the Arabs will be sensible like me and recognize the fact that Israel also has rights to the lands of Palestine.”  
A young man from Iraq shot a picture of his passport along the Tigris River. “I want to send a message of peace and love to the dear Israeli people,” he says. “I decided to shoot this video and tell you, ‘True, we are two countries that do not have friendly relations, but that doesnt matter. I believe that the number of people who support Israel here will grow consistently.’”
    One Egyptian police officer took it a step further by including his police cap along with his passport in the shot and wrote in Arabic, “We love, love, love Israel and its army.” He even added a picture of a heart with a Star of David in the middle of it.
    In a world where leaders or borders may try to keep new ideas out and thwart the possibility for peace and cooperation, it is still possible for ancient ideas, like loving our neighbors as ourselves, to transcend obstacles placed in the way.   I find this story of M from northern Israel greatly inspiring and hopeful.
    And it is one of the best examples that I have seen in recent days of telling one's positive truth, a holy act in and of itself, and having it grow into something greater that spread holiness to faraway places.
     That is what Leviticus 19 is trying to teach us.   We don't know how one holy, kind act will take on a life of its own.   That is why we have to do it in the first place.   It is like a seed that can grow.  

   In the coming days, may we plant such seeds of holiness, consideration, respect and peace.  

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