D’var Torah for May 5, 2017

This past week I had the pleasure of representing the Reform Temple of Rockland at the Union for Reform Judaism Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. This was the largest gathering to date of over 800 Reform Jews who are committed to social activism and positive political change while being guided by Jewish values. I am hoping to speak more about my experiences at our Shabbat Evening service on Friday, May 12.

It also happened that the Consultation on Conscience coincided with one of the most important Parshiyot in our tradition – Kedoshim. This section of the Torah is often referred to as the Holiness Code, as the constant theme of it is about how we can build a just and righteous society.

Kedoshim contains many mitzvot like “not insulting the deaf or placing a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14), as well as perhaps the most important teaching in the Torah, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

We also discussed at Consultation on Conscience the beginning of Kedoshim, “You will be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1). The classic interpretation of this is that Jews are holy because we are in a covenantal relationship with God.

But a closer look at the Hebrew reveals there is something much more profound going on. Instead, the Hebrew is more of an imperative implying we shall be holy if … The “if” indicated here is that we can only be holy by not just aspiring to, but by actually living our lives according to those found in Kedoshim.

Or to put it another way, to be holy means we have to acquire holiness through righteous deeds. As it is explained in the Plaut Torah Commentary, “The Torah aims to create a holy people which displays its consecration to God’s service in the normal day-to-day relations of farming, commerce, family living, and communal affairs” (p. 809.) Holiness is not in the heavens above, but is attainable through the deeds of our hands and the words of our mouths. With this guidance, all 800 of those at Consultation of Conscience felt inspired to bring the tenants of our tradition to the streets of Washington, D.C. and to the Halls of Congress.

The conference was thought-provoking, challenging, and energizing. And no matter your political views, it also reminded us that we, as Progressive Jews, have a seat at the table; and that we can be a conduit to try to bring a sense of holiness to our greater political conversations, which should always be done for the sake of heaven. In the meantime, when reflecting on Kedoshim, I encourage you to do at least one more act of holiness a day. And then plan on joining me at Consultation on Conscience in the spring of 2019.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff