Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reaching for holiness after death: Torah wisdom after Boston and Texas

D'var Torah given at Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA, this past Shabbat.

After the death… you will be holy. That is the meaning of the opening phrases of the two parshiot allocated to this Shabbat. The timing is somewhat uncanny given the unfolding of events in Boston these past 24 hours. Two of Aaron’s sons commit an act that is displeasing to God – in their case it is a ritual act and nothing as horrific as the act of terror committed by two brothers at the Boston Marathon. In the Torah story, both brothers die in the explosion that is a result of their behavior.

At the beginning of the next parsha, Kedoshim, God tells Moses to speak to the people and tell them, ‘You shall be holy, because I the Eternal your God am holy.’ What follows are a set of laws that begin with our relationship with our parents, moves on to reminders to keep far from idolatry, but then primarily focus on providing the kind of social structures that will enable us to preserve relationships with others in our community, built on lovingkindness and mutual respect. And, even as we are told to do justice, we are reminded, ‘do not hate your brother in your heart.’ Yes to justice, yes to rebuking someone when they do wrong, but we must not take vengeance. We must love our neighbor as ourselves.

Earlier this week I posted a blog on in which I shared my sense of anger. It was partly in response to a slew of prayers that other colleagues had written and were sharing on line. Loving, gentle words; words that expressed sorrow and loss, yet hope and inspiration too. Thoroughly appropriate prayers. Prayers like the one we will hear tonight when we pray for healing. Some of our local town churches called mid-week prayer circles together. I’ll be honest. I didn’t much feel like praying. Perhaps it was partly because I, personally, don’t pray to a God that does or does not do something that brings about or fails to prevent these kinds of human-driven evils. I didn’t want to bring God into this picture of terrorism or, for that matter, the terrible images from Texas in the wake of the explosion at a fertilizer factory.

But our ancestors responsible for compiling the text of our Torah were inspired by a sense that we human beings, made in God’s image, could emulate God’s holiness by living according to a code of values and practices. In that sense, whether we believe in a God who literally speaks the commandments to Moses as portrayed or not, we can understand that our people spoke words that were understood as a response to God’s revelation. A deep sense that God’s presence can be revealed at any time and place when we tune in to our highest, holiest selves and choose to act inspired by that sense, rather than react based on fear, anger or despair.

It is very easy to respond from that lower place; all we need do is unleash the energy of our raw emotions. Rev Paul Raushenbush, writing in the Huffington Post Religion pages earlier this week, articulates the difference between Holy Anger and demonic anger; not literally demons, but those raw emotions that can unleash vengeful and destructive acts. Holy Anger, however, is that sense of outrage that human beings commit these acts and take away the lives and futures of others with such randomness and disregard for the value of another human life. But instead of lashing out, as a group of men in the Bronx did this week to the first Muslim they came across, we channel our anger into energy that we intentionally direct to countering hate with love. We counter those who would disregard the value of another human life by acting in ways that honors those lives, treats others with respect, and fosters more love and understanding between us.

And that, I believe, is the message of Kedoshim. We channel our energy in ways that lifts us up as a community and as individuals, to our highest image of ourselves. We respond to death and darkness with lovingkindess and light. I’ve heard the media tell us this week that we are ‘resilient’. I worry, sometimes, that this word might be interchangeable with ‘desensitized.’ But if we are choosing to respond to the negative and evil that would seek to poison our society in a way that makes us truly worthy of the label ‘holy’ then, indeed, we are resilient in the true sense of the word. And, understood through the lens of our ancestor’s response to the call of Revelation, we draw a little closer to the purity of the powerful life-giving energy that I choose to call God.

Hareini m'kabel alai et mitzvat haBoreh v'ahavta l'reicha kamocha, l'reicha kamocha
Here I am, ready to take upon myself the commandment of the Creator, to love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18; lyric from Sheva).