Before I begin, I want to take a moment to acknowledge my parents, Edith and Paul Perman and all of my family, especially my grandfather, Max Perman (Yechiel Mordecai ben Chaim v’Etta) and my Uncle Jacob (Jack) Winer, all of blessed memory. My gratitude for them is overflowing.
Also, I want to thank the Project Rehovot team in advance for preparing a beautiful luncheon to celebrate this occasion.
It is an honor and a privilege to be here with all of you to celebrate my 70thbirthday. Thank you for joining me in our precious community of spiritual kinfolk. I’m going to take the opportunity to share some thoughts about the Torah portion today, Parashat Kedoshim, and relate it to where I am at this time of my life.
Today’s Parashah opens as follows
“Adonai spoke to Moshe saying:
Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy.”
Repeat in Hebrew
Kedsohim Tehiyu – You shall be holy. These words of God conveyed through Moses are commonly viewed as an imperative – the phrase “you shall” would seem to be a command. But there is another interpretation of the phrase I would like to explore with you. It changes the role of God from commander to coach, from One issuing an order to that of a caring, encouraging parent.
What if God, rather thanordering us to be holy, is speaking these words to us to instill confidence. What if “You shall be holy” means: “You already areholy!
Viewed in this way, as an affirmation, is in keeping with the view of Or ha’Meir*, (who lived in the 18thcentury and was a senior figure in the Maggid’s circle,) who, according to Rabbi Art Green and others, interprets this phrase as: “Recognize that you are holy!” as if the word “shall” speaks of an unfolding development, from now into the rest of life.
What is your response to this meaning – the reaffirming meaning? It’s got to feel different fromthe command to be holy, which can seem daunting and make us wonder, “Will I ever achieve it? Won’t I always somehow fall short?”
Right now, some of you might be finding something new and different in these words “You shall be holy”. Perhaps they are taking on a more encouraging, even a reassuring tone. There is no diminishment of the desire to be holy – no sense that, “Oh, if we are already made that way, we don’t have to work at it!” Being assured that we already have holiness within us, invitesus to explore within ourselves for evidence of holiness. Hearing not a command but a reassurance, a prediction of unfolding holiness, might inspire us to fulfill its challenge on deeper levels than ever before.
The statement that we are “holy because Adonai our God is holy” is repeated more than 10 times in this Parashah. Why? Perhaps because when we hear an affirmation repeated,we absorb its truth all the more. It’s as if God, our divine teacher and coach, is insisting that we, God’s children, come to believe that deep downwe share God’s own divine nature. According to the Hasidim, we come into this world with a divine spark. There is more to our births than what science tells us. We are holy because we are breathed into by a force greater than ourselves and remain connectedto it, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Let’s take a moment to close our eyes and say together and to ourselves “Kedoshim Tehiyu…Kedoshim Tehiyu….Kedoshim Tehiyu….”
“Adonai spoke to Moshe saying:
Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israeland say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy.”
In this opening sentence, there is more to explore. The congregation is referred to as B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. It is interesting to me that the congregation is identified in this way, for in his early life Jacob, the man who came to be named Israel, seemed far from one who was holy. For example, he participated in a far-reaching deception.
Think about it. We are the children of someone who started out with many flaws, who was presented with life challenges with which he had to struggle. The Torah says literally, that he “wrestled with God … and prevailed.” Perhaps what is being said is that he prevailed over the “littleness” of himselfand grew into being the father of a nation.
“You shall be holy” doesn’t mean we enter life in a flawless state, or that we will leave at the end having achieved perfection. I think it means we have the possibility, through the way we approach our lives and through the actions we take, to be in a process of transformation like Jacob.
His growth and development are instructive for us. We see that holiness is something we can work toward. Yes, we will fall flat on our face sometimes, but this is a lifelong pursuit. Each time we “fall” becomes an opportunity to engage with the possibility of changing and improving, which are, in themselves, holy pursuits. Our earlier reframing of the command to be holy into an affirmation means we can carry out this lifelong quest with new assurance.
Most people would say that the changes that they deal with every day are not of their own choosing. In fact, change can feel like an enemy. The toughest part of the command to be holy is to keep going when the going gets tough. But suppose we consider that the changes we experience are placed there as our teachers and are there to open us to new ways of seeing. Then change becomes part of the path toward holiness.
To remind myself of this, in the last few years I have instituted a practice from the synagogue where I grew up of coming to my feet for every Kaddish–the prayer that marks the transition between each service. Since that prayer is all about faith in God, standing each time wakes me up to God being in each change.
As I move into my 70’s I have been working moreat cultivating a practice of trying to see God in everything – not just in the things that appear to be “good or positive, but also in the things that are challenging and hard.
Many of you know that I have experienced a big change this year – four eye surgeries in a six-month period and at least one more to go. The outcome is still unknown. I have chosen to see this situation as an opportunity to explore more deeply and create more awareness around what it means to see, I mean to really be aware and to notice God in everything. In other words, it is all “a chance to practice” being our highest and best.
Now, let’s take a minute and close our eyes and say together and to ourselves “Kedoshim Tehiyu….Kedoshim Tehiyu….Kedoshim Tehiyu…”
As a third thought, I’d like to comment on what I see as the strategic placement of this Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus. The second part of the book of Exodus is about the building of the Tabernacle – what each part is made of and how it all fits together. Leading up to this parashah in Leviticus are the instructions for sacrifices and instructions regarding ritual purity, which culminate in the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in a final purification ceremony. With all of those instructions– about how to create a tabernacle – a material home for what is sacred, and with all those instructions about sacrifices and ritual purity, it is not until thisparashah, coming almost at the end of Leviticus, that we are given the holiness code, our instructions for building a sanctuary within ourselves.
As we build, we are learning what our true compass is and where it is pointing. We are becoming a people with a new model – focused on the power of holiness within ourselves rather than on a Pharoah who had only external power. This parashah gives us tools and guidelines for setting the inner course, observe Shabbat, don’t worship idols and so on.
Here is one last insight from this first sentence of the parashah that I couldn’t resist and for this I am going to ask for some help from my grandson Noah and my son Uri:
The first sentence says:
“Adonai spoke to Moshe saying:
Speak to the entirecongregation(Kol AdatB’nai Yisrael) of the children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy.”
(Uri and Noah hold up the letters)
See what you think of this: The word “Adat” here is spelled “ayin, dalet, tav”…from the word “Aydah” – community…It is interesting that the first 2 letters of the word spell “Ayd” – meaning witness…it is when we add a “hey”, that the word becomes “community” – the letter “hey” often stands for God’s name. We could say we are witnesses for each other in recognizing the holiness among us. It is when we add the “hey” (God’s presence) that we create and grow a holy community. It is in holy community that the culmulative effect of the divine spark within each of us becomes one inextinguishable flame. I hope my sharing with you today helps spread the light.
Now, one final time, let’s close our eyes and say together and to ourselves: “Kedoshim Tehiyu…Kedoshim Tehiyu…Kedoshim Tehiyu…”
I didn’t know I would be talking about holiness today. As I reflect on how it evolved, it began with exploring a different meaning of the command, “You shall be holy” – that holiness is already within us, to be uncovered as life unfolds. That connected with a value I long have held -bringing out the best in people.
I mean, if each of us is on a journey of discovering our own holiness, we could use a little help, right? We need people who see the best in us. So, if, in this next decade of my life, I can develop my insight to see and bring out people’s best, I can increase my contribution to unfolding holiness in the world.
Seeing the good doesn’t depend on my age or my state of health, or on the state of the world. It doesn’t change if someone is unkind or even downright mean. It is a kind of movement toward life and more than that to what is eternal. For behind the seemingly every day dramas we participate in, there is a vibration in the universe that is full of love. I feel very much connected to this vibration and my mission is to serve it, no matter what my age or stage of living.
In closing, may I ask you to refer to the sheet you are holding with Psalm 116 on it? In a few minutes we will have the opportunity to sing it together as I express my gratitude to God for reaching this moment.
“How can I repay Adonai for all that has been done for me?
I raise up the cup of deliverance and call out the name: Adonai.
I shall fulfill my vows to Adonai in front of all of God’s people.
How grave in Adonai’s sight is the death of the faithful!
Surely, Adonai, I am Your servant,
I am the servant born of your maidservant –
You have untied the bonds that bound me.
It is to You that I sacrifice a thanksgiving offering,
And call upon the name of Adonai,
I shall fulfill my vows to Adonai
In the presence of the entire people of God,
In the couryards of Adonai’s house, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Halleluyah – joyfully praise God!”
Before we sing this together in Hebrew, I want to take a moment to call up my grandson, Noah and to present something to him that will be part of our song.
Present Noah with Kiddush cup –identify the “chet” and the “peh”. Let us say together, L’chaim – that we grow always in our awareness in how to make the most out of our lives.
I now ask my sons, Uri and Tani to join me and we can all sing together, especially the choruses: Kos Yeshuot Esa, Uvshem Adonai Ekrah”. “I raise up the cup of deliverance and call out the name: Adonai”.
*Ze’ev Wolf of Zhytomir