Thursday, May 12, 2016

Karate Kid Kedushah - Reflections on Parashat Kedoshim 5776

(Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

Someday, in the very distant future, when I approach the podium to - reluctantly - accept the Nobel Prize for Thought-Provoking Torah Blogs Presented Through the Medium of Trombone, I will have many people to thank: my wife, my kids, my parents, the Academy...

This week, though, I must give a nod to three great people: Rashi, Rav Kook and Pat Morita.

First the Rashi: This week's Torah portion begins with the general exhortation to be holy, and then continues with a list of 51 specific mitzvot/commandments, understood to be the means for achieving a holy life. 

In verses 19:11,12 we read:
Don't steal, and don't deny the truth, and don't tell lies to one another. And don't swear to a lie by My Name, that you should desecrate the Name of Gcd, I am Gcd.
Pretty solid advice. However Rashi sees these commandments, not as separate injunctions, but as being connected to one another: "If you steal, you will deny it, leading you to tell an outright lie to cover it, ultimately leading you to take a false oath in Gcd's Name." 

Rashi's brilliant insight got me to thinking about the idea of connectedness in all the mitzvot in Parashat Kedoshim.

If you go back and study the structure of the narrative, you will detect an interesting pattern: the mitzvot (or cluster of interrelated mitzvot) are presented in couplets, punctuated by the statement Ani Hashem/I am Gcd.

A man should fear his mother and father
And My Sabbaths you should observe
I am Gcd.

Do not turn to false deities
And do not make for yourselves physical representations of Gcd
I am Gcd.

[The laws of the peace offering]
[Set-asides for the indigent and the dispossessed]
I am Gcd. 

(I could go on, but if you check it out for yourself, you'll see that the structure holds.)

In each case, beyond the simple meaning of each mitzvah, the structure of the coupled mitzvot teach a meta-lesson. 

Take the first couplet: the underlying rationale for respecting one's parents is the same for observing the Shabbat and holidays. The respect accorded to our parents - as those who created us, gave us life and nourished us - is the same respect we accord to Gcd as our Creator, Who has given us life and has nourished us. And observing the Shabbat bears eloquent witness that Gcd created the entire universe, including us.

Or the last example: don't think that you can get right with Gcd by bringing a peace offering with great fanfare in public, while stealing from the poor in private. (Bam! You now understand the Book of Isaiah.)

All well and good. But why couplets? Why not triplets or quatrains?

The Torah is teaching us something very profound about what it means to be holy. The parasha opens with "Kedoshim Ti'hiyu," you should be holy because I, The Lcrd Your Gcd, am Holy. The couplets speak both to a perfected world that will be, and to the imperfect world that we currently inhabit. 

One the one hand, the parasha outlines a perfected, messianic society; a model in which the poor are provided for, where there is no cheating or stealing or lying or narcissism. A society in which we love one another as we love ourselves, without deceit and subterfuge. A world united in the common recognition that every good thing emanates from the Source of All Goodness. Perhaps that is why the exhortation of Kedoshim Ti'hiyu is phrased in the future tense, not in the present tense.

One of my favorite scenes in the original Karate Kid (1984) is when, early in the movie, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) teaches Daniel-san how to trim a bonsai:

I view the bonsai as a metaphor for the work of tikkun olam/perfecting the world to the Gcdly ideal.

As Kedoshim, holy ones, our task is to focus single-mindedly on that idealized society, without distraction, seeing nothing but the bonsai; taking the world that is handed to us and transforming it into the picture of that perfected, messianic society that the Torah describes and which we envision in our mind's eye. For the seventy generations since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem we have been hard at it, and with each passing generation, through the performance of these mitzvot, we draw ever closer to that ideal. 

But how do Kedoshim deal with the imperfections of the world along the way? What of the evil-doers, idolaters and oppressors of the poor? That is the other part of the couplet, of dealing with the world the way it is.

In this, we are guided by luminaries such as Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. Although we of course never met (he passed over to the World of Truth in 1935), his teachings resonate in my soul so deeply that I, like many others, consider myself to be an intellectual heir, a disciple of his.

In his day, Rav Kook had many detractors, particularly in the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem. They set about publishing and distributing many scurrilous pamphlets and posters, shamelessly excoriating him personally and lampooning his magnum opus, Orot.

And yet, as an exemplar of holy behavior, he never took the bait. He never struck back, replied, or even attempted to defend himself against the scathing criticism of his accusers. He held his tongue and absorbed the abuse without complaint; to the contrary, he dealt with his accusers kindly, never withholding alms even for those of the other camp who knocked on his door in desperate need. 

That is the mark of a holy person. The true litmus test of Kedoshim is how they deal with the darkness they encounter along the way. To aspire to holiness is to never lose sight of the big picture. The bad guys may have the momentary upper hand, but they never prevail. This, too, is the lesson of the couplets in our parashah.

Every Othello has his Iago. As many readers of this blog are already aware, my family and I have been harassed by an irksome madman who has spread monstrous rumors about us to anyone gullible enough to listen. It's also no secret that his whispering campaign has cost me several rabbinic positions. 

In his boundless arrogance, he considers himself Gcd's gift to the Jewish people, but he is much less like the messiah, and much more like Daniel Greer; and Benny Minster and Toviah Singer and his other felonious cronies.

Guided by the example of Rav Kook, we have done our best to ignore him and his wild lies, and we will not dignify his sordid accusations with a public response.

To the contrary: the talmud in Tracate Kiddushin 32 states that a true talmid chacham/student of Torah overlooks insults to his reputation and doesn't chase honor. So people are free to say whatever they want about us, it is of no concern. The A-lmighty above knows the whole truth, and that truth has a funny way of revealing itself in the end.

There is a very moving meditation that is said right before going to sleep for the night: 
Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or has sinned against me either personally, or financially, or against my reputation; whether he did so accidentally, intentionally, carelessly or purposely; whether in speech, deed, thought or idea...may no person be punished on my account.
And of course there is the thrice daily meditation at the end of the amidah: "Give me the fortitude to let my soul be silent in the face of those who accuse me falsely."

I hope and pray that this "Iago" receives the spiritual and psychological counseling he so desperately needs. As for me, I entrust myself to those who know me best: first and foremost my precious family; and my rabbanim, my colleagues, my students and my true friends.

The key is not to be distracted by the maligners. We must not get caught up in the nonsense; rather, we must keep working towards creating the perfected society portrayed in Parashat Kedoshim. That was the path of Rav Kook.

For my part, I will continue to teach Torah undeterred, in order to bring Gcd's People closer to His service; and in so doing, hope to make a small contribution to the collective endeavor of our National Bonsai.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

  1. 5/12/2106
    Hi Rabbi,

    As always, I enjoyed contemplating your blog, Parshat Kidoshim 5776 (and the Karate Kid).

    You’re probably the first person ever to synthesize the Parshat via trombone, a genuine innovation in thought and analysis!

    I find it a new and interesting notion that the Ten Statements #1-5 are thoroughly interconnected. I was aware of the Gd-related significance of the five but never really thought of them as interconnected (BECAUSE ‘I am Hashem, your Gd’ you shall not… with each Statement dependent on the earlier and not simply as related but otherwise isolated mitzvah).

    I admire your perspective, that we’ve been ‘hard at it’ (steadily and steadfastly working toward Tikkun Olam). Sadly, it’s not clear to me that ‘we’ as a society are (or, I should put in the ‘positive’: It’s all too clear to me that ‘we’ as a society are not) working hard at it - after all, the rich grow ever richer and the poor ever poorer. The ‘we’ to which you refer is, as I see it, fellows like yourself, who are immersed in the study of and actively engaged in the pursuit of Tikkun Olam. I think there are far too few engaged in those pursuits.

    Rav Kook’s reaction to his critics is just as the Amidah instructs… ‘to those who curse me, let my soul be silent’. Why expend (waste) energy on those who all-too-likely are deaf and blind and close-minded to any defense one might possibly proffer. I just wonder if those deaf/blind/unthinking are a few, or are many, or are the overwhelming majority. I like to think that the overwhelming majority is just thoughtless and inattentive rather than malicious and malignant.

    Sadly, I think the ‘bad guys’ prevail all too often, even mostly, at least in this world (again, as evidenced by the rising tide of income and wealth inequality). But I still hold out hope for genuine justice (that is, ultimate ‘fairness’) in Olam Ha-ba.

    I was not aware of that intractable thorn at your side. I don’t as much blame the defamer (though I do) as I fault all those who listen to and, far worse, act on the defamation. I’ve had a bit of that myself in years past, but thankfully not so malignant or effective. I think your reaction is correct, it’s pretty much what I’d done (though more out of awareness that any protests and denials I might articulate would fall on deaf ears anyway but, thankfully, most of those with whom I did business did not lend any credence to those gossipmongers and defamers). It’s astounding that anyone takes such talk seriously – we, as Jews, have been assailed over the ages countless times by such egregious behavior (the ‘blood libels’ are an example – libeling us in direct contradiction of our most cherished values).

    In the lay business literature one common theme is, essentially, ‘woe to anyone who thinks he could rise above the malice’ (referring to office politics). I always thought that was a foolish and thoughtless – and pointlessly counterproductive – perspective. 'Rising above' seems the only rational reaction.

    Thank you for your insights!

    Best regards,