January 19, 2020

Be Holy – Torah Portion Kedoshim

When I read the words that begin this week’s Torah portion, “Be Holy”, I try to imagine a profound and complex period of seeking that preceded these words, “be holy”. I imagine a lengthy period of confusion about what to do, what do think, how to be, when a small voice is heard within, “be holy.”

Here is a way into that idea: In the Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers), we are taught, “Upon three things the world stands: On the Torah (The Teaching), on Avodah (service to God), and upon Gemilut Hasadim (“Acts” of Lovingkindness). Those who know Hebrew are aware that “Gemilut Hasadim” does not actually mean “Acts of Lovingkindness” – that would be “Ma’asei Hasadim”. “Acts of Lovingkindness” is the best we can do translating an odd Hebrew phrase.

The word root “gamal” from which we get “gemilut” usually connotes giving a person what they deserve – to reward, retaliate and even take revenge. (The meaning “wean” is probably just a homophone). But in Jewish texts, “gamal” takes an almost paradoxical meaning. For example, if a person has come through a time of danger, they can say “Birkat Ha-Gomel” = “the blessing regarding the God who gives people what they deserve.” 

The translation of Birkat HaGomel is: “Blessed are You, Adonai, who requites good to the guilty, and who has requited me only good.” This blessing is more than paradoxical – it is ironic, saying something, but differently. Here is my free translation:

“I don’t think I deserve the good fortune in escaping that danger. Better people than I am have not escaped. If you are a God of justice, I don’t understand. And if you are a God of love, why me? You could have assigned me a fate I deserved, but instead you gave me good. What can I say? Thank you.”

According to some (not my theology, but some believe this), God is the Gomel in Chief, but apparently somewhat erratic.

Now, what about this third foundation of the world? The Pirkei Avot could have just said, “Ma’asei Hasadim” – literally, “Act of Lovingkindness.” An accurate translation of “Gemilut Hasadaim would actually be, “Retaliation Through Kindness.” I have an idea why the ancient rabbis just didn’t say it straight.

As I was teaching my idea as to why the rabbis said “retaliation through kindness” a person objected – “but aren’t we a tradition of justice?” Yes, emphatically. We also find in the Pirkei Avot (1:18) that the world exists on three things: “Din, emet, ve-shalom” – “justice (literally, rational law), truth and peace”.

Here is my teaching: Sometimes, in the spirit of “justice, truth and peace”, the truest thing to do is forget about justice and do that which leads to peace, wholeness between people. When? I can’t tell you exactly when. We can’t codify when we let go of justice and retaliate with kindness. But I know that sometimes when my ego self is imagining retaliation, a truer voice counsels: kindness.

The term “Gemilut Hasadim” – “Retaliate with Kindness” teaches us something deep about the Teaching (Torah) and Divine Service (Avodah): ultimately, they really can’t be codified, in the ultimate sense. We have to have justice, but a world without random acts of kindness will surely fall.

If you are looking out there for some code about how to live a holy life, for example, when to be randomly kind, stop looking. There is no code out there, no system that can code it for you. The code is tucked away in some chamber of your soul. All the teachings and books out there are there only to alert you of the presence of the true teaching found planted deep inside of us. No one can find it for you.

No one can tell you when and how to “retaliate with kindness” or live out any of the other anagogic oxymorons (contradictions that lead us to a higher level of thinking) that are the foundations of the world.

Of course, you do have to live by a code. The code that is given to us in the outside world, the Teaching we learn, however, is just the womb that births the true and holy self. Be holy – birth your Self into the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley