I have a few one-liners that have stuck with me through the years. They were single sentences uttered in a conversation, or sometimes a public talk, that entered my ears and locked in my memory. Years later, I can still recall both the words and the moment of delivery. (And if you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve come across them before.) Here are my top three:
- During a class in Jerusalem years ago, Levi Lauer remarked, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.”
- In my junior year of college, my friend Josh Cahan, sitting on my dorm room couch, told me, “Feigelson, you could make a really great leader, if you just stopped seeing what’s wrong with people and started seeing what’s right with them.”
- In my first year working at Hillel, Michael Brooks, the longtime director at the University of Michigan Hillel, was giving a talk in which he observed, “Most questions that matter are about membership.”
This observation of Michael’s has resonated with me ever since, and experience confirms it. On an emotional level, to be included or excluded in a group, to feel inside or outside, is a powerful experience from childhood through the rest of our lives. None of us wants to be left out, but we also don’t want to include everyone in everything. We want to be loved, but we also want to know that the love we give and receive is special.
On a cognitive level, we are constantly grouping together–creating in and out–all the time. As infants we begin to label people and things as in or out, this or that, same or different. As we get older, we get more sophisticated, but the move is the same: we group like with like, or we creatively mix like with not-like, or find ways that things that seemed to be different actually have a lot in common. A computer, at its core, comes down to 1 versus 0.
Rashi and Ramban famously diverge in their interpretation of the words kedoshim tih’yu, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Rashi interprets kedusha as separation from other things, while Ramban emphasizes the likeness that results from this move: kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach, sanctify yourself within that which is permitted to you. Both begin with the act of separation. But where Rashi sees the thrust of the command on separating not-holy from holy, Ramban puts more weight on unifying the holy with the holy. One emphasizes the power of difference, the other emphasizes the power of similarity.
We can’t escape the divisions that make up our lives. We are physical creatures, limited in space and time. We can’t be in two places, or two times, at once. We are always outside something. And yet we have moments when we can transcend reality, and imagine ourselves as occupying more than one space and more than one time, when we can be inside everything. Throughout his drashot, the Sefas Emes draws on Shabbat as the embodiment of this kind of transcendent consciousness: a day of unification, when we step outside the time and space that define the regular material world. Shabbos enables us, for a moment, to go beyond the question of membership, to go beyond the inside-outside dichotomy. It is the full expression of kedusha according to both Rashi and Ramban: a day apart that is actually a day when we come together, when we sense that we are part of an exclusive club, of which everyone is a member.