This is a very special weekend here at Adas Israel. This is the weekend where we will have our Garden of the Righteous ceremony, which honors the memory of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. This year, we honor the memory of Jose Arturo Casstellanos, an El Salvadoran diplomat, who used his influence to issue visas to Jews imperiled by the Third Reich. Castellanos, incredibly, is credited with saving 40,000 Jews from almost certain death from the Nazis. We are, of course, so honored that his daughter, Frieda and granddaughter, are with us. And we are so awed by his amazing story. Once again, we can marvel at this quality we call ‘righteousness,’ this unbelievable courage to risk everything, even one’s own life, for the sake of strangers. The purpose of our event is not just to tell the story of a hero, but to inspire us all, to impart the message that this kind of righteousness is, in fact, something that we are all—as Jews, as human beings—called to in this world. But how do we do it? How could we ever find within ourselves that kind of strength and courage to live as righteous human beings?
The answer to this question is, in many ways, the very essence of Judaism. And it is also the essential theme of this week’s parashah: Kedoshim, the spiritual and literal heart of the Torah. It begins with the words Kedoshim tihiyu, You shall be Holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy. It’s quite a charge to the Jewish people when you think about it. We must embody, through all our generations, a uniquely Godly quality called Holiness in our every word, our every gesture, our every decision, our every action. But what is Holiness? In many ways, the meaning of that word is ineffable. Holiness is the quality that makes God, God! And our charge is to live out that Holiness, even though we are imperfect human beings. Our rabbinic and kabbalistic traditions use lots of textual allusions in these lines to reveal a deep truth in this Divine charge: that Israel is like a bride marrying the Groom, who is God. And so, as a people, we are wedded to that Holiness. In our very love for God, like a bride for a groom, we lovingly uphold the inner essence of our Beloved in our lives. So whatever Holiness ‘is,’ it’s all about separating ourselves from the world—just a little bit—just enough so that when we go about our day, there’s a little piece of the Godly in our every action. In essence, so that the eyes of God behold the world through our own eyes; so that the Hands of God move through our hands. It’s a beautiful teaching: the result is that we are called upon to be a people not quite the same as the rest of human society; we are called upon to be not mundane, but just a little elevated in our compassion, in our sense of justice; and separate from the world in our care and concern. But, of course, this is no easy task to accomplish. It takes a lifetime of practice. And our whole system of mitzvoth and study are there to get us to that lifetime of practicing Holiness.
In essence, the whole rest of parashat Kedoshim parses out specific examples of commandments where we can act out this Godly quality of Holiness. Case in point: the Torah tells us “uvekatzrechem et k’tzir artz’chem,” and when you reap the harvest of your field, “lo tichle pe’at sad’cha lakatzir,” “do not reap the corner of the field, [but leave it over for the poor].” It’s a beautiful commandment that creates a society where those who have nothing are remember by everyone else. The corner of every field belongs not to the landowner, but forever more to the poor. But our sages noted an interesting inconsistency in this commandment. When the command begins, God addresses the Israelites in the plural—uvekkatzrechem—when you, plural, harvest; and then it shifts to the singular and says ‘lo techaleh’ do not reap. Why this shift from plural to singular in one sentence? The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, explains this shift with a mashal, a story: there was once a very poor village making plans for the celebration of Simchat Torah, and for the celebration, there was not enough schnapps, or alcoholic beverages to go around. So what did they decide to do? They sent around a barrel to every household, and asked each householder to contribute one glass of schnapps for the communal pool. The first householder thought to himself, ‘Since everyone is going to contribute, I’ll just put in a glass full of water. It’s not like anyone is really going to notice!’ Well, guess what? Everyone in the village had the same selfish thought. And what dismay there was on Simchat Torah when they discovered that they all had a barrel full of water instead of schnapps to celebrate!
So what’s the moral of the story? There is indeed a mandate on us all collectively as the Jewish people to be holy, to leave the corners of our fields for the poor. But don’t assume, just because the mitzvah is in the plural, that you “cut corners” for yourself. To be Holy means that you take the responsibility deeply, profoundly to yourself. In that subtle shift from the plural to the singular, therein is the essence of Holiness, of righteousness itself: it all rides on how much I can see how everyone, the plurality of us all, rides on me and this one decision I make right here, right now. That’s Holiness! That’s Righteousness! Take care, Israelites, our tradition teaches. Don’t just “forget” to leave the corner for the poor. Don’t figure out clever and deceptive ways to get around the injunction. The stakes are just too high.
After the Torah commands us about the corners of our fields, the injunction ends very clearly, very powerfully with the words, “Ani Adonai Eloheichem!” I am the Lord your God. And, of course, that’s a nice way to punctuate the command. Don’t be selfish or untrue, because I’m God. I said so. Don’t think you can get away with shirking this because I, God, know the Truth. As 21st century Jews, we can read this injunction, and we can understand why ending it with ‘…because God said so,’ might be very motivational for our ancestors. But perhaps that lacks a motivational power for many of us today. But before we right it off as having no more force, take a moment to consider the power of this statement in its context. The Torah reading began with the words ‘Kedoshim tehiyu,” You shall be Holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy. And so remember what we said a moment ago: To be Jewish is to be Holy, to be ‘wed’ to God, yes. But even if you don’t know what to believe about God, we can all agree on what is “Godly:” it’s that apartness, the elevatedness, that practice of abstracting from our experience just enough to see and act with eyes and hearts and hands of compassion. So that little statement “Ani Adonai Eloheichem” isn’t just “I’m God and I say so.” It’s a way of saying ‘Remember who you are.’ ‘Remember your real purpose in this life.’ Don’t fall into the trap of being merely human. Yes, we’re human, but we have a spark of the Godly that lives in potential in our every action, in every moment.
Ani Adonai Eloheichem. There’s the potential for the Godly, the Holy, the Righteous in this very moment, in this very decision. Remember! Holiness happens in our realization that this moment, this choice, is actually bigger than you are. There’s an ethical imperative right here, right now. Holiness comes down to this one choice, this one realization: are you going to turn to selfishness, or are you going to face your responsibility to the world in this moment?
Another way of understanding this choice of Godliness, of Holiness is that it all comes down, quite simply, to the Truth of this moment. Are you going to face the Truth, or are you going to lie to yourself: that’s okay, everyone else will be contributing the schnapps. Oh, it’s okay, everyone else is going to leave the corner of their field. That’s okay, everyone else will pay their taxes honestly. That’s okay, I’m sure someone else—maybe in a better position than me—that someone else will save the Jews. Here’s what it means to be Holy: to be holy is to commit ourselves, body and soul, never ever to lie to ourselves.
And there it is: what is the righteousness that makes for a great man, a hero, like Jose Arturo Castellanos? It’s the righteousness of a man who refused to look away from the Truth. It’s the righteousness of a man who understood that there was an ethical imperative in this moment, in this choice, that was vastly greater than he. It’s the righteousness of a man who would not, who could not deceive himself. Why? Because Ani Adonai Eloheichem: because he understood that to be fully human is to rise above the mundane, to be separate and elevated above even his own complacency, above his own self-centered impulses. There is something so inspiring in this, and so beautiful that we Jews can celebrate this essentially Jewish imperative to Holiness, to Rigtheousness, reflected back from the heroism of a non-Jew. It gives us hope that the Holiness that lies at the heart of our Torah, is a Holiness that one day we can share with the all the human beings of this earth. Tomorrow, we will join together with Jews and non-Jews, Americans and Latinos, all races and creeds to celebrate this righteousness, this Holiness that can overcome all darkness and evil. May we indeed be inspired by the heroism of Castellanos, may his memory inspire us to affirm the Holiness of our Jewish souls. May we, like Castellanos, never again lie to ourselves. May we face the Truth, no matter how difficult that Truth is to face. And in that Truth, may we find the Face of God showing us the way to preserve life, to uphold justice, and transform this earth to a place, once and for all, of peace.