Parasha Kedoshim

Parashat Kedoshimcontains messages of great spiritual power and holiness.  There is also a spirit of sorrow that hangs over it. The focus on holiness is powerful and positive, but it is also mysterious and sometimes devastating. 

The holiness code functions as a comprehensive system of separation between Israel and its pagan neighbors, as is emphasized in the closing verses (20:26). The question that arises for me is whether or not we can truly balance universal compassion with particularistic loyalty. This is another tension that is hard-wired into our spiritual life.

Of course, the Torah contains "counter-texts"-in the most famous verse of all, we are commanded to love others like ourselves (19:18). We are commanded to care for the destitute-including the destitute "stranger"-and not to oppress anyone; to protect the disabled and to maintain a just society for both kinsman and the ever-present stranger. Moreover, in the haftarah Amos tempers the chauvinism that can result from a claim to national holiness.  He tells Israel that they are indeed like the other nations-beloved and assisted by God, but also responsible for exemplary conduct. The tensions abound.

Our parshah leads us directly into the difficulty of balancing our own sense of worth and honor with compassion for other people. The same verse that enjoins us to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with a less cited clause, "Do not take revenge or bear grudges upon the children of your people..." This would seem to ban both external and internal expressions of resentment against others. That is a very challenging command, perhaps even more difficult than the more famous second half of the verse! Indeed, the rabbis puzzled over this verse. If you look at the TalmudYoma (end of 22b and top of 23a), you'll find a puzzling statement made by Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak. The statement is that, "Any Torah scholar who does not revenge and bear grudges like a snake is no Torah scholar!"

This statement is so outrageous that the Talmudimmediately objects and tries to interject some interpretation that "might" be reasonable. Doesn't the Torah command us not to take revenge or bear grudges? Perhaps that is only for monetary matters, but if a person is assaulted, then may he take revenge? But aren't we told that a person who accepts such sorrows will have sins forgiven? Perhaps he was saying that the scholar should just keep such thoughts in his heart? But aren't we taught that a person who purges from his heart will have all his sins forgiven? The Talmud resolves somewhat weakly that perhaps Rabbi Shimon was referring to a case where the scholar sought to make peace with the offender and only after failing resolved to either take revenge or at least bear a grudge. 

What I take from this is that the Torah's attempt to regulate not only behavior but even emotion is extremely difficult and not universally accepted. Negative feelings towards other people for their insulting and damaging behavior are experienced by all. And yet, the Torah here is establishing a character ideal of deep humility and compassion. Other religions have made such acceptance into cornerstone tenets. This is not to say that injustice should be tolerated. Religions generally teach that there is an obligation to confront injustice and establish just societies. But this verse, in Part A and Part B, goes further-do not seek revenge, do not bear grudges, but rather, "show love to your neighbor, for I am the Lord." 

On this Shabbat I suggest that we each take time to consider how to live with the tensions inherent in any community seeking to create holiness and how we may release negative emotions and truly embrace one another in a spirit of love. We are dealing with many tensions in our personal and collective worlds.  We are at the forefront of the injustices occurring in the East Ramapo school district but must still love our neighbors, and we are certainly all focused on the happenings daily in the Ukraine to our brothers and sisters.  Tensions are difficult, but my appeal is to think today about someone with whom you are in tension and to release that in your heart, so that when you next meet that person, you can once again find a friend and create a community where the divine spirit is welcomed.


Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham