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The Holiness Code: Six Reflections from Central Members

Posted September 27, 2017

On Yom Kippur afternoon we read a section of the Torah known as the holiness code. This section, found in chapter 19 of Leviticus, is at the heart of the Torah and contains some of the most moving commandments within our tradition. We asked six of our members to reflect upon one of these commandments. They did so in front of our community just after we chanted from the Torah. We are grateful for their personal and moving insights which are shared below:

Mary Wilson
Leviticus 19:3

Revere your mother and your father, each one of you.

The Torah tells us that children should honor and revere their parents, helping us to understand, in the prime of our lives, how to care for them. Honoring is not always easy and certainly is not possible with just our own strength. It’s important to understand there are many ways we can honor and revere. We are being taught the honor and appreciation we have for our parents is an extension of our relationship with God and can set us on a path to holiness.

Caring for my mother with dementia was a significant part of my life until she passed. She never could have imagined the journey her disease would take her on. This disease is extremely difficult. I made sure she had the right care. She was kept at home surrounded by what was familiar. I wanted her to live the last years of her life with dignity, in comfort and with love.

For 10 years I’ve watched my mother-in-law care for both of her parents. She does this with incredible strength and commitment while balancing her own career. There were many days that challenged us. We did what we did because we love our parents and have great respect for what each one of them truly wanted. Our paths are unique. It is our behaviors that truly make us holy.

My children are growing up witnessing this loving devotion. The choices we make and the examples we set are so critical to how they begin to open up their hearts and find their path towards holiness. I did not always have the patience I needed. I often questioned myself.  I can share with you now I have found a certain peace in my heart that feels a little bit like holiness.

Lindsay Camens
Leviticus 19:3

You shall keep My Shabbat.

As a New Yorker, my life is busy and stressful.  I often feel like I’m operating at one hundred miles an hour with a very full plate – working full time, raising two young children, volunteering at the kids’ school and doing charity work, and making time for my husband, family and friends. I admit, I am sometimes overwhelmed.  Amongst all of this, I have found Shabbat to be an outlet for me and my family.

I have not always felt this way.  Growing up I had preconceived notions about what it meant to observe or participate in Shabbat.  But in my adult life I have realized that one can engage in Shabbat in many ways; for some it may mean going to services, for others it may mean turning off all electronics.  My version of observing Shabbat continues to evolve.  For now, it means pausing for a short period every week to catch my breath.  Most of the time I do this at Friday night services.  I try to tune out the hatred in the world and the responsibilities of everyday life.  There is no yoga class or strong cocktail that relaxes me, grounds me and brings me greater joy than walking through the doors of Central Synagogue on Friday night.  Here I connect with myself, my family, my clergy and my community.  This allows me time to refresh and gain perspective, which I try to take into the upcoming week.

It’s fitting for me that this year Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat.  It has given me even more time to pause, appreciate my family and reflect as I prepare to go forward into the year ahead.

Mari Hinojosa
Leviticus 19: 9-10

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap the corners of your field, and do not glean the fallen ears of your crop.  Nor may you strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the overlooked grapes; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal, am your God.

My mother spent her childhood in Mexico City. She lived on a humble street and her family was of modest means, yet home was comfortable, and delicious food always bubbled on the stovetop.  Every day at dinner hour, a small figure would enter the kitchen holding a set of stacking enameled tin pots.  Quietly, she would fill the pots with a helping of everything and leave as unobtrusively as she had arrived.  Carmelita was an older woman, living alone at the end of the street in a dilapidated shack, and this was the only meal she would eat all day.  The children in my mother’s family knew that they were not to serve themselves until Carmelita had taken the first portion— sparing her the indignity of eating the family’s leftovers.

When I was growing up, my own family had an old-fashioned tin container that my mother affectionately called “Carmelita’s Pot.”  It sat on a shelf in our kitchen, where it served as a reminder of our good fortune in having never known hunger, and of the obligation to share our plenty with others.

In this passage of Leviticus, God instructs us not to reap the corners of our fields or strip our vineyards bare. While we may not cultivate actual fields, we do reap ample harvests, be they material or spiritual—wealth is our field of corn, time our vineyard—and each of us has some portion of resources to share.  When we fill Carmelita’s pot with the first portion—when we give the best of ourselves and of our bounty to those in need, with respect for their dignity and humanity—then do we reflect the holiness of the Eternal.

Laura Slatkin
Leviticus 19:14

You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.

My daughter, Ali, taught me that a modern day stumbling block facing our society is our lack of acceptance of individuals with a disability.  Ali has a twin brother, David, who is highly impacted by autism. David has no language and he has severe aggressive behaviors.  When Ali became a bat mitzvah she spoke to the congregation about autism, and told this story: “One day I was walking in the park and my eyes fell upon a little boy who was in a wheel chair. When our eyes met I thought about all the times people had stared at my brother and how uncomfortable it made me.  Instead of staring at this little boy, I smiled. He smiled back and I know that warm exchange made his day.” Ali asked the congregation to accept those with differences.  She said “the next time you see someone who has a disability smile don’t stare.”

Recently I was shopping at the market and in galloped a young man in his late 20’s making loud, inappropriate vocalizations and flapping his hands. He went over to a mirror and starred into it laughing loudly and obsessing about his own image. All the shoppers around him were staring.  My heart saddened: seeing him reminded me of my David. Then I thought about Ali’s profound words.  I walked over to the young man and tapped him on the shoulder.  He turned and looked at me.  I smiled at him.  He smiled back.  I high fived him and he hi-fived me back. I don’t know if it made his day but I hope I set an example for those who witnessed our exchange.

When I got home that night I shared this story with Ali. She had a question. Where was his mother?
I said “I don’t know.  He appeared to be alone”.
She responded,  “Mom, and you left him there? -  what if he was lost???!” Mom!!!!

My daughter taught me that a smile is better than a stare, a high five—even better. But perhaps in some cases acceptance requires more of us—we have a responsibility to those who have a disability— and a smile is just the beginning.

Alan Abramson
Leviticus 19:33-34

When strangers live with you in your land, you must not oppress them.  The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt..

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees there are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced from their countries of origin. The number is vast beyond comprehension…we perceive a faceless mob, and by that dehumanizing perception we lose a measure of our own humanity.

In his extraordinary novel, “Exit West” Mohsin Hamid tracks the tortuous path of two refugees from an unnamed country that reads like Syria. A young man and a young woman experience the gamut of emotions as they shuttle from one unwelcoming environment to another. Upon completion of the novel my perception was altered as our common humanity was made manifest. These people were no longer faceless. They could be us. They could be our children. They were us. They were our parents and our grandparents.

That this global humanitarian crisis could be exacerbated by our country as Washington debates whether to deport the 800,000 “Dreamers” breaks my heart.

Leviticus instructs us as a direct commandment from God to treat the strangers in our midst with empathy and respect. To follow this mitzva is to be holy. To ignore it is an affront to fundamental precepts of morality and decency. Forcibly sending children who are integrated into, and contributing to our society, to alien, unfamiliar lands, beset by unthinkable horrors would be nothing less than sinful.

Jews know what it is to be vulnerable, to be outcasts, to be “the Other.” We have a moral obligation to ponder this. We “were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Jonathan Crystal
Leviticus 19:34

The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

I first felt what it meant to be a “stranger in the land of Egypt” at the age of 21, living abroad, in Mexico City.

I was asked: “¿De dónde vienes?” Where do you come from?

Born in New York City and raised in Texas, I hesitated briefly before responding: San Antonio, where I learned Spanish.

My answer elicited the next question “¿Y, de dónde viene tu familia?” Where is your family from?

The United States, I felt more confident in responding. The US of A.

No, no, ¿Eres Español? Are you Spanish?

Hadn’t I just said I was American?

And then it dawned on me: This was not simply a matter of translation.

In Mexico, my height and fair coloring were markers of race and class. I was being asked something more like “Where are your people from?”

I paused again, this time longer. My family had been in the US for over a hundred years. Our genealogy wanders across much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Mexico is a devoutly Catholic country.

I answered:

Soy judio.

I am Jewish.

Soy judio.

I am a Jew.

The two words felt awkward, unusual in my mouth. Like an admission.

But they also felt…true:

An identity distinct from passport, driver’s license, or birth certificate.

Soy judio.

I, too, am a stranger in the land of Egypt.