Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kedoshim Simcha trees
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
April 25, 2014
Rabbi Larry Freedman

If you have looked over tonight’s Torah reading, you might ask, what is the rabbi thinking?  Why are we reading this?  If you know that we are making our way through the entire Torah and that this year we focus on the sixth aliyah, you would know that the rules of adultery just happen to be what we are reading.  And if you come to Torah study tomorrow, you get to read the rest of the aliyah and delve into even more sordid and uncomfortable territory.
And then you might ask, on a night of celebration, why are we reading this difficult material?  So, I’ll tell you.
The Torah is a frank document.  It does not shy away from the holiness and vulgarity of the human condition.  Everything is discussed.  If you want only uplift, read Proverbs.  If you want real life, read the Torah.  That’s why in a parasha that includes the famous, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we also find rules forbidding every possible form of adultery.  The Torah addresses everything.  It tells us that there is a reality to humanity and sometimes it’s not good.  But, here I am, says the Torah, offering guidance and a path that can help.  We don’t turn away from the ugly.  We look at it straight in the eye and choose a better way.  The Torah tells us, don’t be upset because there is ugliness.  We miss the point if we shy away from the uncomfortable.
And we also will miss the opening words of our reading:  You shall faithfully observe my laws; I the Lord make you holy.
What an extraordinary concept that God makes us holy.  Nothing less than holy and for what?  For agreeing to live moral and ethical lives.  In a world with such ugliness, we can create holiness, we can bring holiness, we can be very models of holiness by simply agreeing to live ethical and moral lives.  Simple.  Simple and yet not so simple.  There is a lot of temptation, there is seduction, there is selfishness.  There are so many things that pull us away from the right path.  Moral and ethical living requires us to think of others and to consider the group as a whole.  Living a holy life and bringing holiness into the world can’t be accomplished by the selfish.  It can’t be accomplished by the gossip, the cheat, the mean-spirited.  It can’t be done by those easily seduced by the very tempting dark side.  Living an unholy life very often seems much more tempting than living a holy life.  The leather jacket bad boy gets more attention than the goodie two shoes.  Indeed, we often make fun of the “do-gooder.”  And that’s really weird.  Shouldn’t we all aspire to be a do-gooder?  Shouldn’t we all aspire to make the world a better place and make ourselves better people?
Our aliyah starts us off by saying, you can be holy.  You can be holy and bring holiness into the world but to do so, here’s a list of things to avoid.  What’s that you say?  You weren’t planning on doing any of that anyway?  Fantastic.  You’re well on your way and next week I’ll have a new list for you to discuss.
There is a beautiful mystical notion that comes out of this teaching.  There is a mystical idea that there are sparks of holiness that are waiting to be released.  A metaphor perhaps though some believe it to be literal.  Sparks of holiness waiting to be released by drawing near to God and by being mindful of what we do.  If we eat and just eat, we are like animals.  If we say a blessing beforehand, we elevate the act and release a spark of holiness.  And, if we eat just out of gluttony, well, that’s that.  But if we eat as part of a celebration, if we eat mindful that food gives us the fuel to get out there and make the world a better place, then eating is holy.   If we take a nap tomorrow, we take a nap but if we are mindful that it is Shabbat and we make an effort to rest on Shabbat we release a spark of holiness.  If we rest on Shabbat mindful that then we’ll be even more ready to face the world come Sunday, we release a spark of holiness.  Everything, if done for a higher purpose, can release a spark of holiness.
And that gets me to thinking about our Simcha Trees.  After much work and consideration, more than you might imagine, we have another part of our home in our home.  Our trees have made their trip and proudly tell the story of happy events and moments in the life of our congregation.  Looking over the leaves we are transported back in time to this wedding or that graduation or a Bar and Bat Mitzvah and we remember the people.  Those leaves remember people and events and the warmth of community when we see our friends on the wall.
And, those leaves are also a moment of holiness.  Sparks of holiness come from each leaf.  Do people make a donation just to see their name up there?  Are people so narcissistic that they must memorialize their wedding or anniversary?  I don’t think so.  I believe that those leaves are an opportunity for holiness.  It is not a pleasant topic but it must be said that keeping our congregation going since 1854 has required people’s time, energy, creativity and, let’s be honest, money.  The heating and air conditioning bills don’t get paid by themselves.  The lights don’t pay for themselves.  And there is the rabbi’s salary which is a large part of the budget, a responsibility I take quite seriously.  All these things take money. 
On the tree, we have a wide variety of simchas, happy events that already incurred some cost: a baby naming, an engagement.  There already were parties to plan or clothes to buy or caterers to hire.  There already was an expense and yet the people who bought those leaves knew that they had one more expense.  They knew that their simcha would never have been the same if Temple Beth Jacob had not been here; if the building didn’t provide a warm environment, if a rabbi hadn’t always been available to guide them.  And it wouldn’t have been the same without our musical leadership or administrative help.  And so those people who have purchased leaves released a spark of holiness.  They fulfilled the mitzvah of supporting their community.  They understood what this community means to them and they helped to ensure that the community would be there for the next family celebrating a joyful moment.  Since 1854, Jews and Jewish families in the Newburgh area have been mindful that their private joy is really our communal joy; that we all rejoice together, as a community.  That mindfulness makes the synagogue more than a catering hall and Temple Beth Jacob more than a club.  We are a holy community, a kehillah kedosha.  Right now, under construction, we may be tempted to forget that.  But look at the names on those trees, remember the events on those leaves and know that every family there made sure that a little something went to the congregation so that we can continue on.  Needless to say, I hope you will be inspired to make your next event or moment a holy one as well as you fulfill the mitzvah of supporting our community.

Everything in this Kol Yisrael project has taken longer than we would want which is why we must be doubly proud and excited as we reach each milestone.  Today is a good day as we re-dedicate the simcha trees in their new home and as we re-dedicate ourselves to our community.  May we continue to be mindful of our actions, may we continue to reject the easy temptations and may we always reach for spiritual heights.  May we continue to be worthy so that God can make us holy.