Parshat Achare Mot – Kedoshim
April 28, 2018 | 13 Iyar 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler
Israel is a familiar place to me.
After having spent more than two years of my life there, I guess it should be.
Get off the plane, begin to speak Hebrew, hop in the sherut and anticipate the ascent to Jerusalem … a place I know very well.
But it was different this time.
I didn’t head to Jerusalem.
Instead our bus headed north from the airport.
We stopped in Caesarea.
Peter? The Roman centurion? The first non-Jew to become a Christian?
That was new to me!
The next day to Yardenit on the Jordan River…a place of baptisms today and symbolic of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry after he was baptized in the Jordan.
That was new to me, too!
Then to the Mount of Beatitudes … the Mount of what?
The place where Jesus offered the Sermon on the Mount and spoke what, for believers, is eight memorable aphorisms, for example, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Well, those particular words were not new to me, but I didn’t know anything about this place or anything else about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Then off to Capernaum and stories of Peter, the first “Pope.”
Guess what – I think I have been there…but those stories were new to me.
No, this trip to Israel began and continued like no other I had ever taken.
We were a group of rabbi and Protestant minister pairs from the eastern half of the United States, participants in a program called “Interfaith Partners for Peace.”
My “better half” was Dr. Dock Hollingsworth, Senior Pastor of Second Ponce Baptist Church on Peachtree.
During those first few days when we focused on holy Christian sites, I could see and feel the spiritual uplift of my Christian counterparts.
Somehow their uplift began to become my uplift.
Then I saw and heard their reactions and the insights they gained as we reached Jerusalem and toured Yad Vashem.
Obviously, the Holocaust was nothing new to my Christian colleagues.
But Yad Vashem had an impact on them. I could see it.
I think it created for them a greater understanding of why it is that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric today penetrates the consciousness of many Jews in unsettling and sometimes, painful and infuriating, ways.
The next day I walked through a number of Christian holy places in East Jerusalem and the Old City largely with my Christian sisters and brothers.
It was an incredible learning opportunity for me!
And again, their spiritual uplift in these places contributed to my own.
I began to wonder – Why was I having this feeling of uplift at Christian holy sites?
In part, it was because some of those places were also holy to me and to my tradition.
But I realized that something else was happening.
That phrase I sometimes use – “Christian brothers and sisters” was becoming a reality.
We were really becoming Christian brothers and sisters!
We were forming a spiritual bond across religious lines that I had never previously felt.
I don’t know how many times I have used that phrase “Christian brothers and sisters” in invocations and speeches to Christian audiences.
Let’s be honest – Ordinarily it’s the nice thing to say, and it helps me to form a bond with my audience.
In other words, it’s largely a rhetorical device.
But over the course of a week together in Israel, I really came to mean it.
A single verse in the Torah, found in the second of our Torah Portions today, helped me to grasp what was happening on this mission.
That verse offers what is arguably the most challenging and potentially uplifting words in the entire Torah.
“Kedoshim th’yu kee kadosh anee Adonai Eloheichem” – “You shall be holy because I, Adonai, your God am holy.” (Lv. 19:2)
Whenever we do that which is kadosh, the Torah tells us that we are like God.
And what does it mean to do that which is kadosh?
Just look at Parshat Kedoshim – It means to be in relationship – in relationship with time, space, objects and, most obviously and frequently, with people and raise up those relationships … sanctify them.
Sanctify relationships – Seek to make them special, even extraordinary!
I might paraphrase Hillel at this moment as he spoke with that idolater nearly 2000 years ago…
“Transform ordinary relationships! – Sanctify them!”
“…That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now, go do it.”
For a week in Israel, through shared experience, transformative insights and spiritual uplift – Christian and Jewish clergy became “Christian and Jewish sisters and brothers.”
Our relationships became “kadosh.”
They reflected holiness and the presence of the Holy One.
On this trip I learned about another way that ordinary relationships can be raised up to be imbued with sanctity of sorts.
As I said, our mission was called “Interfaith Partners for Peace.”
We had a good bit of contact with Palestinians and with their perceptions of their plight.
I didn’t know precisely how to react to the warm words of the Palestinian Christian leadership of the Nazareth Evangelical College in the Galilee.
I wanted to fully embrace them!
I know that I was quite uncomfortable as I listened to the harsh testimonials and views of Mahmoud Muna, an East Jerusalem bookseller, who was born there and whose family has long lived in the area.
To enter Bethlehem, an area fully administered by the Palestinian Authority and to be protected – not watched – but protected by Palestinian security and uniformed Palestinian police with rifles was simultaneously ironic and a little unnerving.
These experiences – in all their discomfort – forced me to try to see things from the perspective of the one – the Palestinian – who I have always seen as the other.
I had a choice as I listened to our Palestinian guests and looked at those who assured our safety in Bethlehem.
I could see them as I think many of us perceive of them – as the enemy who hates Jews and wishes only to push Israel into the sea, or I could see them as human beings who are entitled to view things differently than I and my people tend to see them.
I could see these Palestinians as threats to be controlled, or I could see them as human beings who have the ability, as all of us do, to reflect the presence of the divine.
To be honest, I don’t know which is correct – threat to be controlled or human beings at least to be respected – but I choose the latter, whenever possible.
In that choice, I recognize a kind of kedusha, as reflected in Parshat Kedoshim.
I feel like I am reflecting God’s presence.
If you are still listening to me, I know that you may be finding my message today to be a difficult one…maybe even a little troubling.
It’s probably not the way 62-year old rabbis who serve on AIPAC’s National Council usually speak.
But that’s OK.
I am a Conservative Jew and, as Rabbi Neil Gillman, of blessed memory, taught me many years ago, that means I embrace the tension I have shared with you here.
I don’t deny it.
I often reflect on a well-known statement in Pirkay Avot when I think about the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and become forlorn.
Let me share a portion of that mishna with you.
“Hevay meetalmeedav shel Aharon – ohev shalom v’rodayf shalom…”
“Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace…”
It’s not very difficult to love peace, is it?
But to pursue peace when it’s incredibly challenging to do so?
That’s really why I chose to participate in this Interfaith Partners for Peace mission …
Because I wanted to nurture my soul that yearns to be among the disciples of Aaron – not only loving peace, but contributing just a bit in pursuit of peace.
My friends – that is what I believe the Holy One asks of us – to be holy ones; to seek to establish relationships…even to raise them up and sanctify them…not just when it is easy to do, but when it feels difficult and challenging to do so.