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Watch the 2018 High Holy Day sermons!

 

Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

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Shemini - Godliness

 

Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

“For I Adonai am the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.” - Leviticus 11:45

 

P’shat – Explanation

In this parasha, as throughout the Torah from the Exodus onward, whenever God tells the people how they are to treat each other, other nations, and even God, God declares God’s own “credentials” by saying that God redeemed the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt. The invisible God, Adonai, is responsible for their very freedom.

Moreover, as in this passage, God tells the people the reason they were redeemed in the first place: specifically, so that Adonai will be their God. Because Adonai, God of redemption, lifted them out of their enslavement, Adonai alone deserves their absolute loyalty and commitment. They are to forsake the many gods of Egypt where they lived as slaves for hundreds of years, and the many gods of countries and kingdoms they pass on their way to the Promised Land. This is especially true regarding the gods of the Caananites, with whom they will live in intimate closeness once they arrive in the Land of Israel.

Today, many biblical scholars believe that much of the Torah was written after the Israelites were already in the land. As a result, they read God’s insistence on the people’s distancing from other gods and sole loyalty to Adonai in the context of the Israelites being surrounded by Caananite deities.   

Furthermore, it is not enough for the Israelites merely to accept that Adonai is their one and only God. They are also to see their eternal spiritual challenge as living in such a way that they imitate God’s holiness as their own.

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“God should be so real to us that, in place of the fear and distrust which overcloud our lives, we should be possessed of such peace, poise, and power so as to render us free and joyful and give us a sense of dominion.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

 

Kaplan’s vision of God here is a spiritual challenge: our personal experience of God should inspire us to be “god-like” in our own lives. We are to embrace the very qualities—peace, poise, and power—emblematic of God as described in the Torah. This, for Kaplan, is how we fulfill the commandment in Leviticus 11:45 to “Be holy for I am holy.”— a challenge directed not only to the priestly class and tribal leadership but to the entire Jewish community.

This particular command to “be holy, for I am holy” may in fact be the single most powerful commandment in the entire Torah. Imagine the kind of world we would live in if most people who read the Torah, Jews and non-Jews alike, imitated the holiness of God in every relationship, decision, and action.

Kaplan believed that when we as individuals act in such ways, we gain sacred dominion over our lives. We replace fear and distrust of both ourselves and others with “peace, poise, and power,” and bring godliness into life—ours and others.

Both the Torah passage and Kaplan’s text reflect the overarching rabbinic idea of what it means to be created in God’s image. In Mishnah Avot 3:18 Rabbi Akiva teaches, “How greatly God must have loved us to create us in God’s image; yet even greater love did God show us in making us conscious that we are created in God’s image.” In other words, by imitating God’s ways in our daily lives, we also demonstrate our understanding of being reflections of God.

 

D’rash– A Personal Reflection

Living the Boy Scout Motto

When I was eight, I joined the Cub Scouts.  My mother, being my mother, the quintessential volunteer, volunteered to be the “Den Mother,” and so Cub Scout meetings were held at my house.  That began a process of communal socialization that included us Cubs volunteering at various community events. Further, I learned early on from my family to be a full participant in the life of my community. Like my mother, I was supposed to step up when someone or some organization needed my help.

The Cub Scouts led to my becoming a Boy Scout. We began every scout meeting by reciting the famous Boy Scout Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically fit, mentally awake and morally straight.”  Every time I recited that oath I would think, “Wow, this is a serious commitment. I wonder if I can really keep it.”  Not only that: Each week, our troop would stand together and pledge to obey the Scout Law by reciting the moral and ethical qualities we were committing ourselves to uphold: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”  Week after week, this list was so ingrained into my psyche, more than fifty years later I still can recite it from memory.

Reflecting back upon the Scout Law, I realize now that these ways of being represent another pathway to holiness. If everyone actually lived these values, our world would be so transformed, we would all think we had been transported magically to our own “Promised Land.”

“Be holy for I am holy” is God’s challenge to us to live as a source of holiness and godliness in the world.  The clearest way to fulfill this challenge is to give of ourselves to others—to feel a sense of personal responsibility for the quality of life in our community, especially for the lives of those most vulnerable: the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed, the poor.

Despite many social setbacks, we actually do fulfill this challenge every day in America, to a surprising degree.  According to the US Bureau of Labor, more than 64.5 million people volunteer almost eight billion hours of their time each year to nonprofit organizations, churches, synagogues, and civic groups throughout the US.  This amazing statistic demonstrates that, contrary to the image of America as a “What’s in it for me” nation, Americans are actuality very generous and giving.

What is more, America was founded on the principles of communal participation and giving—precepts that, in fact, extend back thousands of years to the Torah, specifically its ethical and moral teachings concerning communal life. America’s Founding Fathers knew the Bible well and drew upon it as they wrestled with the challenging issues of nation building—even suggesting at one time that Hebrew be considered one of the official languages of the emerging United States. As they, and we today, “imitate God” in our attitudes and actions, we advance not only Jewish ethics, not only more universal moral values, but also an American way of life from its inception.

 

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Mon, April 12 2021 30 Nisan 5781