People are so...

Teenage me goofing around in Jerusalem.

Teenage me goofing around in Jerusalem.

When I was a teenager, I had a bit of a catch phrase when the world dished up a truly unbelievable whopper that I couldn't believe. In exasperation, I would cry, "People are so stupid!" Now, I'm a few years removed from being a teenager, but, on occasion, I still let out a cathartic, "People are SO stupid!"

It's one of those remarks I've never given much thought to, never dug deep internally about, never fully shed as I inconspicuously morphed into an adult. This week, as I was reading through the Torah portion, I had a realization. People ARE stupid, but I never meant stupid. Stupid was a filler word, one of those English words that mean little and yet take the place of more appropriate words due to a lack of vocabulary or effort. By stupid, I realized as I read, I really meant impure.

I really meant the impurity of existing in extreme pride, of speaking and reading mindless gossip, of constantly judging others, of cheating to get ahead, of profaning science and in turn profaning God, of worshiping our false idols of egoism and resume building, or of placing career over family and loved ones.

Vayikra (Leviticus) teaches us that purity and impurity are not poles, they are not two ends of a spectrum. Purity and impurity are cyclical, like a clock; at times we are pure, and at other times we are impure. Not by any fault of our own, but by human nature, and the rhythms of our daily lives. We all fall into cycles of excessive ego, of being yentas, of following false leads, of cutting corners, of worshipping modern idols, of getting our priorities out of whack.


And because Vayikra knows that we fluctuate by nature, it provides us with a troubleshooting guide for when we become impure. Now the troubleshooting guide is a bit archaic - it involves sacrifices of goats. And the last time we brought a goat in here to atone for our sins, I hear the brand new carpet was defiled and rendered, and perhaps remains eternally impure. So we won't try that again - but, what can we do?

In our parsha, we are told, K’doshim tihiyu, or “You shall be holy." If we zoom out and look at the forest of Leviticus instead of its individual trees, we see that it tries to get us to live a "Kosher" life, but inevitably we fail. So we are instructed to return to the guideposts of faith, go through a period of introspection, and atonement, and participate in a physical ritual like the mikveh (the ritual bath), and then we will once again become "Pure," and are sent back out there with a smack on the tuches and told: try again and K'doshim T'hiyu. Go be holy.

But how? How do we use our religion, our tradition, our Torah to recognize our fluctuation between impurity and purity in an attempt to live holy lives?

Here are a few suggestions.

First, use our tradition for self-reflection and radical self-honesty. Our parsha tells of the archaic goat ritual, in which "Aaron lays both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confesses over it all the iniquities, all the transgressions of the Israelites." The Hebrew word for confess here is hitvaddah, which means “to reveal oneself.” (Leviticus 16:21) In prayer, in study, in holiday observance, we are gifted the opportunity to be vulnerable. Take it. Peel back the layers. Be honest with yourself and ask: Where have I not been my best self? Where have I failed myself, my family, my friends?

Second, purify yourself through time. This Torah portion includes the commandment to observe Yom Kippur, our annual day of atonement. We're told that on Yom Kippur, atonement shall be made for us, to cleanse us of all our sins; then we shall be pure before God. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for us, and we shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time. (Lev 16:30-31). And though there are acts that accompany the day, the day itself has purifying power. We often think of Yom Kippur and atonement as a once-a-year event. But the Talmud teaches us something profound.

It teaches us [Rav Ḥisda said that Mar Ukva said:] [For] One who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Kiddush [vaykhullu], the two ministering angels who accompany the person at all times place their hands on their head and say to them: “And your iniquity has passed, and your sin has been atoned” (Isaiah 6:7). (Shabbat 119b)

Our tradition teaches us something profound: that time has a cleansing power. But only when we set Shabbat and our other holidays apart from our normal rhythm, only when we sanctify those days and build our palaces of sacred time. Rabbi Heschel teaches that "Every seventh day a miracle comes to pass, the resurrection of the soul." If we don't set aside that time, we lose that opportunity.

One last thought: A Midrash riffs on a verse from Jeremiah that says: "Adonai is the hope (mikveh) of Israel" (Jeremiah 17:13), and teaches that just as the ritual bath of purification (mikveh) cleanses those who are unclean, so God cleanses Israel/the Jewish people.

Therefore, God, declared to all of Isarel: if you cannot go to your synagogue because you are busily at work in your field, pray there; if you cannot manage to pray in the field, wait until you reach your home and pray there; if you are traveling and cannot pray in your home, pray on your bed while you rest; if you are on the move and cannot pray on your bed, then commune with your heart (Midrash Tehillim 4:9 & Leon Nemoy).

In other words, just give it your best. Our tradition offers so much, and we make space where we can in our busy lives. Every week poses new challenges, AND also new opportunities. Some weeks we can purify through self-reflection, and others we can purify through setting apart time to be with our people. As long as we do something, then we can earnestly say we are trying to be k'doshim, we are trying to be holy.


Alex KressComment