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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת צו, תשפ״א

Parshat Tzav, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

The Holiness of Community

Throughout this Pesah (Passover) we will explore themes introduced in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. We’ll talk about the interplay of Judaism and romantic relationships, why human love is so integral to Jewish life and practice, and how Shir HaShirim is used in Jewish liturgy. Over the next week and a half, Shir HaShirim will help us hone in on the essential truth that loving, human relationships are integral to our best Jewish lives. We need interpersonal relationships in order to practice mitzvot with integrity, and we know the importance of these relationships to be true beyond just the romantic.

In a couple of weeks, we will arrive at Parashat Kedoshim, in which God commands Moses, דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה׳ אלהיכם. Speak to the entire congregation of Israel, and say to them, you shall be holy, for I - Adonai your God - am holy (Vayikra 19:1). God’s commandment to be holy is not directed simply to Moses or the elders or the priests, but rather, to the entire congregation of Israel. When God says, קדושים תהיו, אני ה׳ אלהיכם, the command to be holy, and the “your” in “your God,” are both in second person plural, referring to more than one “you.” 20th century Israeli commentator Nechama Leibowitz puts the communal nature of God’s holiness command succinctly:

No single person, be he the most devoted of God-fearing men, can fulfill all the commandments single-handed. It is therefore that this chapter is given in full assembly - for only “all the congregation of the children of Israel” can fulfill the Torah (263).

In addition to ritual and sacrificial commandments like those we’ll hear in today’s Torah reading, our book of Vayikra (Leviticus) features commands like leave the corners of your fields for the poor, respect your parents, don’t lie or steal, and pay your workers on time. Quite literally, none of these commandments can be done without another human being to receive these commandments. The holiness achieved by performing mitzvot is simply not possible outside of a community of people devoted to supporting one another.

We aspire to pray in a minyan not just because the Talmud says so, but also, because we cannot reach a certain level of holiness without the give and take of diverse individuals learning and acting together. When we learn Torah in a room with others, we learn how to better formulate our own thoughts, and we share ideas about the different ways to interpret God’s teachings. When we see or hear that someone in the room has performed a mitzvah, we are inspired to perform our own mitzvot - if they can do it, we know that we can too! Together, we can divide up phone numbers of people in need to call; together, we can collect hundreds of pounds of groceries for the food bank. Together, we can learn about the trusted businesses and organizations to support in town. And of course, more people quite often translates to more joy, more inspiration for us to come back to this holy space week after week.

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches that טובים השנים מן האחד, two are better than one. Two achieve greater benefit from their earnings, two means that one person is always there to lift up the other, and two have a greater chance of standing up to an attacker! (Yes, Ecclesiastes also mentions that two can keep each other warm at night, but we can talk about that more with Shir HaShirim.) Just as two or four or sixteen are often better than one in practical matters like finances, emotional support, and combat, a community is vital for inspiration and success in holiness. In Jewish practice, lighting candles, keeping kosher, and saying regular blessings before we eat are all well and good, but mitzvot performed bein adam l’havero, between a person and her fellow, the kind of mitzvot we perform here in community, are truly what make for holiness. As we prepare for a whole lot of services and perhaps some meals with family and friends in the days to come, may we search for words of Torah and for opportunities for mitzvot at every moment. Shabbat Shalom!