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.

Shabbat shalom.

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Parashat Emor continues the discussion of holiness that has preoccupied much of the book of Leviticus. Unlike last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, it focuses not on a wide range of discrete subjects, but on a few large issues: relationships, sacrifices, and time. The parasha begins with the instruction to the priests that they are generally prohibited from coming into contact with a human corpse, but they may do so for immediate relations. It then discusses the physical completeness—perfection is an apt, but more loaded translation—necessary both for the priests and the animals offered as sacrifices. Finally the parasha takes up holiness in time, namely Shabbat, the festivals, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

What links all of these pieces together is the emphasis on kedusha, holiness or separateness. The Torah insists on kedusha in all of these dimensions: relationships, space, material objects, and time. On one level, this is a radical notion, that we can apply such a mental or spiritual construct throughout the Creation. There is nothing inherent in anything created that would suggest that it is different or special or holy. Kedusha is in the eye of the beholder—you have to believe it to see it. So when the Torah tells us that holiness applies across all elements of the world, we have to recognize what a bold claim that represents.

On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t so radical after all. As infants we begin to categorize and recognize along the lines of sameness and difference. All of language, the mental space within which we inhabit the world, is predicated on our ability to call something by a name. And our sense of awe or wonder is evoked when we reach the limits of that ability, when we encounter the ineffable, the unnamable, the holy. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “we have a certainty without knowledge… In moments of sensing the ineffable, we are as certain about the value of the world as we are of its existence.” This is as basic to us as recognizing the people and objects in our lives, even if we have forgotten how to recognize such a moment itself. In Heschel’s telling, everyone is capable of experiencing radical amazement, of encountering kedusha—we simply have to open our eyes to it and nurture our ability to sense it.

Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his Pachad Yitzhak, teaches that the covenant of with Noah and the covenant of Sinai do not contradict one another. Sinai is rather an elaboration of the covenant with Noah, except in one respect—our relationship with time. Rav Hutner cites the verse, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22), and in particular its final words, lo yishbotu—here translated as “will not cease.” But he links these words with the Jewish legal prohibition to a non-Jew of fully observing Shabbat: lo yishbotu means, They may not make Shabbat. Thus when the commandment is given to the Israelites at Sinai to make Shabbat, an element of the previous covenant with Noah is overturned. This is distinct. While Noahides are enjoined not to murder, not to steal, not to practice idolatry—all items which are reaffirmed in the covenant at Sinai—in the area of time something fundamentally shifts at Sinai. The idea of kedusha, of sacredness in time, becomes a unique Jewish heritage.

In this lies one of the basic animating tensions of Jewish life, both today and throughout history: the extent to which our practices and rituals are rooted in basic human realities on the one hand, and are total innovations on the other. According to Heschel (and others like Rudolf Otto), holiness is a pre-cognitive truth of human life: all human beings can sense that which is beyond words, that which is holy. But for Rav Hutner (and, to be fair, for Heschel as well) there is a uniquely Jewish aspect to kedusha, particularly in time, but also in all the other dimensions to which it applies: space, relationships, the material world. Kedusha, in our holidays, in the land of Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, in our relationships with other Jews both within and beyond our immediate families, is the unique aspect of our language as Jews. As its name implies, it is what makes us unique and special—not better, but unique.

Shabbat shalom.

The Torah portion of Emor is composed of two halves. The first deals mostly with laws pertaining to the priests (Kohanim), the second with the cycle of festivals. In summing up the first section and leading into the second, the Torah offers some stirring words:

“Keep my commands and follow them. I am the LORD. Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the LORD, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev. 22:31-33)

The ancient Rabbis understood the commandment to sanctify God’s name as addressing the most extreme circumstances: When one is forced to choose between publicly giving up one’s Judaism or being killed, a Jew is to choose the latter. This is a commandment of martyrdom. (This is distinct from the traditional rabbinic understanding that all mitzvot may be set aside to save a life, including one’s own, except for murder, idolatry, and sexual sins. The particular commandment of sanctifying God’s name has to do with the public nature of the circumstances; it is therefore only invoked when ten Jews are present, which constitutes a public.)

This is a potentially troubling commandment. In an age when the specter of religious violence and the language of martyrdom pose real threats to Jews in particular and humanity as a whole, how do we learn from this commandment?

In distinction from those who would martyr themselves by killing others, the Torah clearly makes no such provision. The Torah’s allowances for taking life are narrow and limited and inapplicable here.

More to our point, an essential Big Question of human experience is “What would you die for?” If we don’t know the answer to this question, then we don’t really know the answer to its inverse: “What are you living for?” What is most important to us? What is so important that we are willing to put ourselves in harm’s way on its behalf? Granted, most of us will hopefully never encounter the situation described by the Rabbis. But all of us encounter shades of it every day: We make decisions to spend time and money in this way and not that, and in so doing we write the story of our lives. What guides us in those decisions? What is ultimately most important?

What the Torah does here is to remind us that we must always view our stories from the standpoint of the story that will be told. When confronted with a choice, we ask ourselves, “What should the story be here?” We want our lives to be noble, we want our memories to be for a blessing. The work of making them so happens now, in every moment, while we are here on the planet.

Shabbat shalom.