D’var Torah: Serving God by serving others

Rabbi Stanley R. Miles

As you read this issue of Community, you find yourself on a spiritual and historic journey of the Jewish people.
We move in time from Pesach (Passover) Zman Heruteinu (Our season of freedom) to Shavuot, recalling receiving the Ten Commandments from G-d on Mount Sinai.
What an experience it must have been for our ancestors; seven weeks making up for 430 years lost in the mire and tragedy of slavery in Egypt.
Were we truly ready for those incredible changes? Obviously, we were not, as we reverted to worshipping that Golden Calf. Are we indeed ready now? I wonder.
Passover is a no brainer. More Jews celebrate Passover than any other Jewish holiday. The message of freedom constantly resonates with us at our seders and beyond. But what about that festival seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot, our festival of weeks, when we celebrate the revelation at Sinai and our acceptance of Torah?
Shavuot is almost lost. This year, the festival falls about as late as it can – June 8-10. Lacking the customs and rituals, unlike other holidays, Reform Judaism transformed Shavuot into a time for confirmation of teens, a religious school graduation. Up through the 1960s, most Reform congregations were SRO for the service, equaling attendance for the High Holy Days. But as bar and bat mitzvah became more popular, enthusiasm for confirmation waned.
Then another event, the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, breathed new life into Shavuot observance around the world. Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a marathon study session at the beginning of the festival. Louisville Jewry should be proud. Every congregation offers a different study experience. The events are lively. The attendance … could always be better.
What can be done to solve this problem? How can we, as individuals and a community, meaningfully complete this path from freedom to revelation? I believe an answer may be found in a Torah Portion we encounter the week of May 4-11. It is Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27); aka the Holiness Code. As free Jews, we must understand how to behave and what our responsibilities are. This code answers these questions for us, both as individuals and community members.
We begin with a challenge: “Holy shall you be for I, Adonai your G-d, am holy.” Holy means behaving in such a manner as we imitate G-d; truly a tall order.
What is holiness, according to Leviticus? It is many things, beginning with respecting one’s parents and continuing with how we treat those less fortunate than us. This is a slippery slope. We must help the misfortunate without ever embarrassing them.
Some aspects of holiness come across as somewhat peculiar. “Do not place a stumbling block in front of a blind person?” Only a cretin – a sadist – would do such a thing. The rabbis, of course, don’t take these words literally. To them, it’s all about the people who trust you. If they ask your opinion, do not dare to give them incorrect advice. In following it, they may trip and fall.
By the end of the 19th chapter of Leviticus, there are words that define holiness, and always will: “You must love the stranger as yourself….”
The Torah doesn’t stop there; it explains why: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt….”
It is easy to love family and friends, not so much to love that stranger, a person totally different from us. Where shall we begin?
What is holiness for us? It is empathy in our thoughts and, more importantly, our deeds.

(Stanley R. Miles is rabbi emeritus of Temple Shalom and the chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.)

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