Substitute Rav

While our chicken dinner is marinating in mmmm-good Kikkoman Teriyaki Sauce, and before I pop it in the oven:

Friday night services went pretty well, I think. As I am not yet proficient enough with the Reconstructionist siddur to lead a service straight out of it (despite that I am aspiring to be a Reconstructionist rabbi), I — with the rabbi’s blessing — dusted off my “Erev at the Improv” service and set forth to Cotati.

People seemed to really enjoy it! There were about a dozen people there, including one man with whom I’m sort-of acquainted and want to get to know better (he too bothers his wife with endless optimism that Hashem’s plan is unfolding as it should, whether or not it’s personally convenient for those of us caught up in it.) I kind of blew the penultimate verse of the Aleinu, though, but no one seemed to mind.

There was quite a bit of participation, and some nice reactions during the dvar. Here it is. I think it’s kind of lame in parts, but I think I’ve learned a bit from it:

Dvar Torah - Shabbat Achrei Mot/Kedoshim 5762

A friend of mine once told me something so simple, yet profound, that I wish I'd thought of it first. He told me that all of the world's religious teachings boil down to just four simple words: "Don't be a jerk." (Except that he doesn't use the word "jerk.")

In many ways, this week's Torah portion tells us the Jewish art and science of how not to be a jerk.

We actually have two parshiyot this week, so I'll be more specific: we're lookking at the first part of the second parsha, Kedoshim, which is chapter 19 of the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. The parasha begins with G-d saying to Moses, "Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai eloheichem - You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy."

"What is meant here by 'being holy?'" asks Richard Eliot Friedman in his new Torah commentary. "The chapter that begins with this statement stands out because, perhaps more than any other in the Torah, it merges major commandments of so many different sorts. It includes most of the Ten Commandments, sacrifices, justice, caring for the poor and the infirm, treatment of women, of the elderly, food, magic, loving one's neighbor as oneself, loving (a stranger) as oneself.

"If one had to choose one chapter out of the Torah to make known, it might well be this one. The strange mixing of so many different kinds of commandments may convey that every commandment is important. Even if we are naturally inclined to regard some commandments as more important than others, and some commandments as most important of all, this tapestry presses us to see what is important and valuable in every commandment, even commandments that one might question."

This can be illustrated by a recurring pattern: Twelve passages conclude either with the phrase, "Ani Adonai eloheichem - I am Hashem, your G-d" or simply "Ani Adonai - I am Hashem." Six of these passages are notable because they concern things which could only be known to the person doing them, like swearing falsely, insulting the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind. But they also concern matters of the heart - loving others as we love ourselves, for example.

What can this mean? Why the continual "Ani Adonai?" One interpretation is the parental, "Because I said so." But another interpretation is this: Even when there's no one else around, we're around.

That means the Shechina, the Presence of G-d, is around, too. But only when we pay attention.

Like the uncertainty principle of Reb Heisenberg, Torah is telling us that we affect the Universe by observing it. Perhaps in the same way, we also affect the Universe by observing mitzvot.

But our parsha teaches us that observation is only half of the equation. The other half is discipline and practice. Kedoshim teaches us to do both ritual and ethical mitzvot - but implies that they're only mitzvot if we are aware of them as mitzvot. In other words, if we refrain from hatred or pay the plumber on time because it's the right thing to do, we're behaving ethically. But if we keep in mind that refraining from hatred or paying the plumber on time is an expression of our relationship with the Divine, then we transform our ethics into mitzvot.

In this sense, we can potentially transform anything that comes our way into an awareness of Hashem - or, if we prefer, an awareness of the underlying unity of all things. I like to think it's a little like playing soccer: Our goal is the net of awareness. Life passes us the mitzva-ball, and our job is to knock it into the net using our heads and feet. Our heads to think and feel - and our feet to walk in the way the mitzvot lead us...

Shabbat shalom.

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