Former New York governor Mario Cuomo once stated “we campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” We know that pattern in politics. The soaring rhetoric and glittering generalities give way on the day after victory to nitty gritty details, and sobering realities.
Most people live lives in much the same way. We have brief flashes of poetic transcendence – a new love, a remarkable mountaintop view, and yes, for many courtside seats at the UConn championship basketball game. These times can send heart and soul soaring. And then, comes the day after where it is back to the bills, the worries, and the laundry.
The Jewish notion of holiness, Kedushah, addresses this reality. By seeing God and godliness in the stuff of daily living, the tradition seeks to bridge the gap between poetry and prose to infuse even mundane moments with meaning, purpose, and the poetics of good living. It’s about uplifting time and ordinary acts like eating, or welcoming a weekend, and giving them ritual expression with blessings and lit candles. In doing so we say that God is present at a typical meal, and that Friday night becomes Shabbat.
If that were all that Jewish tradition accomplishes we could say in the spirit of Pesach, “Dayenu” – it would be enough. But the Jewish ideal of Kedushah provides something even more vital to us. It gives us a firm vision of what life as a whole should be about and how to regard each other.
Early spring is the time for rebirth and hope. But it is also a time of remembrance, Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah), the twelfth anniversary of the Columbine massacre, and the fourth anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech all lie before us. And because Kedoshim falls within this timeframe it begs us to look at the contrast between the reality of the calendar, and the possibilities of Torah.
The cult of death engendered by the Nazis fuel the fantasies of those who would hurt and maim. In this world cruelty is celebrated, chaos and nihilism reign supreme. It is a realm in which the human face of the vulnerable is eclipsed by ruminations of power and delusions of greatness in being the oppressor.
In steps Kedoshim. The very names of Torah portions are instructive here. The preceding portion, which is often joined with Kedoshim is Acharei Mot which means “after the death.” And “after the death” comes Kedoshim – the holy, the counterpart to death.
Ours is the portion that says we are to be obsessed with life, with the enhancement of the Divine image, the potentially holy in each of us. In this world basic goodness is only a minimum. Honor parents, show kindness to strangers, avoid unfair weights and measures – these are just the beginning. Do the unexpected – avoid situations in which you might be able “to get away with it.” Don’t curse the deaf, or put stumbling blocks before the blind. And most remarkable of all, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The idea of the holy takes our highest instincts, the poetry of possibility and turns them into a moral imperative. It asks how are we going to guarantee our humanity and that of others? And the answer of Torah is that the decent act is much more than just a good thing to do. It is a necessity propelled by the reality that each human is created in God’s image. The weak, and the hard to like along with the rich, and the beautiful. The refuse of society can even become to paraphrase the Psalmist “the chief cornerstone.”
We desperately need an idea of the sacred, the reverential especially at a time of remembering, and reckoning with the sadness and terror in our world. To be holy is to recognize with deep and radical empathy the Divine stake in every human being. The notion as Heschel put it “that in order to be a person you have to be more than a person.”
It is a challenge to remember this remarkable call to duty. But it is also Judaism’s great contribution to the world around us.
Rabbi Jim Rosen is spiritual leader of Beth El Temple of West Hartford.