Sunday, May 6, 2012

Kedoshim: The Choice to be Holy, delivered May 5, 2012

קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני יהוה –“Holy you will be, because holy am I,” God declares.

Is it a choice? Though the writer of this well known introductory verse to our Torah’s Holiness Code did not employ the grammatical imperative tense, it certainly reads like an imperative. “You will be holy!” God demands. The expectation is clear: we will behave in a manner which is respectful, generous, and in turn, holy. It is easy to focus on the behavioral expectations. We should all respect those elders who nurture, protect, and guide us. We should leave the corners of our fields for those who are hungry. We should care for the stranger in our midst. We should strive to be fair in all of our dealings. And it is easy to criticize those who don’t and blame them for their own failings.

What happens, however, to the ability to behave according to the expectations of this Levitical Code when the opportunities for experiencing a sense of holiness, a sense of respect and well-being, is so far out of reach that even trying to behave well, according to “the code,” doesn’t get you there?

At the start of this week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to ride along with a Baltimore City police officer during his patrol shift through a segment of the Western District of Baltimore city. This opportunity came about due to my involvement in the Baltimore Jewish Council, an organization that works to nurture community relations and inspire community activism. I had never been to the Western District of our city before. Now, I’m not a native Baltimorean.  I’ve been here for almost 20 years, a short time by Baltimore standards, but certainly long enough to take a tour through the entire city, even those parts deemed less than savory by most. Yet, I’ve never had reason to venture deep into this part of the city. I’d bet there are plenty of life-long Baltimoreans, too, who have failed to take note of this particular side of town and the utter desolation that is a daily constant there. This is an area of town where entire blocks of bordered up and partially destroyed homes have become haven for the culture of drugs, prostitution and violence that is so firmly entrenched there. This is an area of town where Edgar Allen Poe’s former residence resides, but where armed guards are called upon to patrol the entire area when students come to visit (imagine the message this sends to our youth). This is an area where children have been raised to spit at the very feet of those who have chosen to devote their days to trying to maintain law and order and keep them safe.

Where are the opportunities for kedoshim there? Where are the opportunities for holiness in a place where respect and generosity have been replaced by fear and disdain of even those whose primary service is to protect them. Where are the opportunities for holiness in a place where behaving in a respectful and generous manner may put you – or your loved ones - in harm’s way?

The assumption of our Torah portion is that everyone has the same opportunity for reaching towards and being holy. If only we behave according to the terms laid out before us, then we, like God, will be holy and all will be well. Such an idealistic understanding, however, leads us too quickly to blame those who get stuck in places where the opportunities for kedoshim – for success -- are so far and few between. The stark reality is that not everyone has the same opportunities for living according to these terms. There are those in our world who have never witnessed the kind of generous and respectful behavior the Holiness Code is seeking to establish. There are areas of our world controlled by people who work to instill a different “Code of Honor,” and it isn’t at all honorable. There are areas of our world where hunger – emotional and physical -- runs so deep, it is simply too hard to think, let alone act, beyond it. How on earth can one be asked to behave in a respectful or generous, if one is living in such conditions? How on earth can one be asked to behave respectfully or generously if one has never seen or experienced it? How can one be asked to simply “pull themselves up out of it” when they have no sense of what they are pulling themselves towards?

Perhaps that’s why the biblical hand opens with the mandate that everyone in the community will be holy simply because God is holy. Before any rules are outlined, we are subtly and continually reminded that we are made Btzelem Elohimani adonai elohechem. It is not up to us to judge those who fail to reach a certain standard too quickly or too harshly. According to biblical tradition, we are all made in the image of God. Whether we live in areas that provide us great, or even moderate opportunity, to thrive or in areas that seem to squash our inherent capacity to succeed, we all are equally human and deserving of those opportunities for kedoshim. The question remains, how do we make those opportunities present for all!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Parashat Metzora: A Tale of Slander, delivered Shabbat morning 4/28/2012

Once… many, many generations ago, in a time and place that was in so many ways not so unlike today, there was a young man struggling to keep his friends. I must tell you, that this young man at one time was very popular. He had lots and lots of friends. Everyone in the community seemed to be drawn to him and his remarkable ability to tell tales – elaborate and entertaining tales. The problem was, it was soon noticed, that most of his ‘tall tales’ were told at the expense of others. He was able to weave a brilliant story, but too often used his gift of storytelling in order to spread gossip and rumor. Slowly, as his words and stories spread, his friends and neighbors, one by one, started avoiding him. They didn’t want to be the source of his tall tales. The young man couldn’t understand why everyone was beginning to leave him alone. They were just words…he may have exaggerated here and there, or shared negative gossip that he had heard, but it wasn’t like he was actually hurting anyone? Or, so he thought.

After awhile, he began to apologize for his behavior, but he was still left alone. No one wanted to be his friend. So, he went to his Rabbi for advice (as was common in that day and age), asked, “Rabbi, how do I make friends again?” I’ve tried to say I’m sorry, but no one will listen to me.

The Rabbi asked the young man if he truly want to make amends for his behavior. The young man respond eagerly, “yes!” So the Rabbi told the young man, “Go and fetch a pure feather pillow and a pair of scissors, and then return to me.” The young man was very confused by the Rabbi’s request, but he followed the instructions nonetheless. He found a pure feather pillow and a pair of scissors and returned to the Rabbi’s study. “Ok, here I have the pillow and scissors. Now what?”

And the Rabbi responded, “Go now to highest hill in our district, cut a hole in the pillow, and let all of the feathers, every single one of them, out into the wind; then return to me here. “ The young man, thought the Rabbi was a bit nuts, but he was eager to have his friends back so he complied with the unusual request. He went out that evening to the top of the highest hill, cut open the pillow, and watched as all of the feathers took flight into the wind. He then dutifully returned to the Rabbi’s study.

“I did everything you told me, Rabbi! I took my pillow and scissors out to the highest hill and let all of the feathers from the pillow out. It was beautiful watching all of the feathers float in the air, but I’m not sure I understand: how will this help me get my friends back?”

The Rabbi continued carefully, “I have one more task for you. I want you to go back to that same hill and collect all of the feathers into this paper bag.”

The young man was outraged! “What? How am I ever supposed to do that? The feathers have already blown to the next town by now…heck, they are probably all over many towns far beyond our small hamlet. How could I possibly gather them back up? You have set up an impossible task!”

“Ah…,” the Rabbi answered. “So it is with your words and your stories. They have spread far and wide, and it is an impossible task to gather them back. It will take time, patience, as well as effort, in order to earn your friends’ and neighbors’ trust back. In the meantime, keep your words close to your heart and your lips, and guard your tongue from evil or malicious speech.

This well-known, and often adapted, folk tale expresses the essence of the Rabbinic understanding of Parashat Metzora. Particularly by the late Rabbinic period – the period known best for its aggadic interpretations, the unknown affliction known in the ancient world as Tazra’at (and mis-understood by moderns as leprosy) was viewed as a punishment for engaging in slander and malicious gossip. Metzora was viewed as a metaphor for motzi shem ra, for bringing forth or furthering a bad name or reputation. Simply put, slanderous talk was viewed as a threat to the very foundation of human society. The Talmud, for instance, links the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to claims of gossip (B. Gitten 65a). Kohelet, the anonymous author of Ecclesiastes, writes “many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen by the tongue.” (Kohelet 28:18) And, it is noted in Genesis Rabbah that “what is spoken in Rome may kill in Syria” (Gen. Rabbah 98:23).

Short of transporting ourselves back in time to the biblical period in order to ask if the intent of parashat metzora was in fact to deal with impurity brought upon the community due to slanderous talk, we will never know how much the Rabbinic interpretation was born out of a real desire to curb gossip or an effort to contemporize and relate to a challenging text that they too didn’t fully comprehend. An interesting question for sure for the historian.  From the rabbinic perspective, however, it doesn’t quite matter. Rather appreciating and, more importantly, learning from the creative and valuable lessons of rabbinic tradition and incorporating them into our time becomes our mandate as modern Jews.

Our society as a whole could learn from the rabbinic concern with slander. Just look at the manner in which many of our political candidates speak about each other. Look at the print media with which we are bombarded at various check out isles. Listen to the manner in which so many of our television characters and personalities speak to each other. It is incumbent upon us to model a better example for our children. Our capacity for language is one of the critical characteristics that separate us from the rest of the animal world. We’d be wise to view our abuse of language, as the early Rabbis did, as threatening to humanity. We’d be wise to use our words – whether spoken, typed, or texted – in a manner which forwards compassion and understanding in the world.