Someone Just Like You

Someone Just Like You

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

Shabbat Shalom
Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 7:31 p.m.
Torah readings: Lev. 19:1-20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:17-15 (Ashkenaz);
Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephard)
Shabbat ends: 8:35 p.m.

Whereas Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, die tragically for bringing uninvited offerings to God, in this week’s reading God goes out of his way to encourage the entire people, not only the crown princes of the priesthood, to “be holy” [Leviticus 19:2].

“Speak to the entire community of the children of Israel and tell them,” says God to Moses. It is this insistence on talking, speaking, and communicating with ordinary Jews, underlying the disparate laws within this week’s Torah reading, which shows that the relationship is paramount.

Nadav and Avihu’s thirst for holiness is never faulted, only their timing. When it comes to the entire people, however, passion for holiness is precisely what God wants. Stressing the collective notion of edah (assembly), the Talmud [Sanhedrin 3b] teaches: “Wherever Israel gathers, the Divine Presence rests,” implying that it is within the community of Israel that this coming together will take place.

What is this quality of kedushah (holiness) that God has bidden us aspire to?

In keeping with the classical commentators’ insistence on the complete difference between the holiness of the Creator and that of any of his creatures, Maimonides points out that, since the gulf between God and mankind is unbridgeable, any invitation to cross can be only metaphorical. From this it would follow that we are asked to pursue Divine knowledge with our intellect and imitate Him on ethical grounds. However, between human and Divine, declares the Rambam, there can be no tangible common ground.

Since the injunction cannot be taken literally, the chasidic commentary, Maor Vashemesh, ridicules those who would put on superior airs and cut themselves off from ordinary people. Quoting Jeremiah — “If a man enters a hiding place, do I not see him? says the Lord” [Jeremiah 23:24] — Maor Vashemesh says that the more people “hide” from society, thinking they are spiritually higher than others, the less use God has for them.

While each of us may only be a fragment of holiness, since God is One, His holiness comprises everything. Accordingly, what is required of us as only fragments of a whole is to be involved in the life of the community, in which we as individuals may become part of a holiness that comprises more than just ourselves, learning from the good deeds of others and filling in for their shortcomings.

In attempting to disentangle the various component strands behind the idea of kedushah, Rashi says the word means something apart, different, inherently superior. At the same time it denotes a stage of preparation for elevation to a higher purpose, such as the consecration of a physical object or vessel, or even a woman, as in the ceremony of kiddushin (marriage). Thus exists the prospect for transformation to a higher state and even, as in the case of a bride, for union.

So expansive is this feminine analogy imagined in Kabbalah that the aspect of possibility for God to be drawn down to the confines of physical space has come to be typified as a “daughter.” The Midrash expresses it thus: “The Shechinah’s sphere of activity extends only to the lower regions” [Bereshit Rabba, 19:5]. It would seem that this “lower” aspect of God is feminized only because, in comparison with her origin, it is inferior. From this, a dangerous question rears its head: Is the Divine inherently superior, after all?

While paying lip service to traditional notions of inequality, the Maggid of Mezerich turns concepts of superior and inferior holiness on their heads. He expresses it this way: “Be holy, because My holiness above is yours.” From this it would seem that God’s holiness in the supernal regions is dependent on ours. According to this chasidic concept, Israel, as representative humanity, through good deeds in the “real” world, brings about holiness in heaven. Rather than God being superior to humans, He depends on us and on our good deeds in this world for replenishment of His own goodness. As the Zohar teaches, “Arousal above corresponds to arousal below,” and even begins there. The movement must start from below. The drawing down of the Divine begins with us. And, as in any human or physical relation, to the degree that one is committed, one is also vulnerable to the suffering and mayhem that befalls one’s partner. Says the Ishbitzer rebbe: “God walks in the midst of your camp — so don’t lead Me into foul places!”

What makes this special emphasis on holiness necessary, as with any human relationship, are the risks involved. If a two-way relationship exists between us and God, then immediately physical constraints begin to apply as a protective hedge.

There is a chasidic story that reverses all our expectations of Divine superiority when it comes to reaching out for human relationship.

There was once a king who had no greater pleasure than to stroll about a beautiful garden in his spare time with his best friend. The day came when his friend disappeared, and the king could not find him anywhere. Inconsolable, the king looked everywhere for his friend, hunting high and low, calling out his name. Instead of becoming angry and accusing him of breaking the law, raining down on him terrible punishments — death, harsh labor, pain, and loss of Paradise — God, in this chasidic retelling of the expulsion from Eden, tries to draw his friend back with soothing words. “Where are you? There’s no need to hide from Me. Come back. There’s no need to be ashamed. Don’t be frightened.”

Casting around for a final inducement, God adds, “Remember, whether you decide to come back to Me or not — I am someone just like you!”

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review.

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