I had the privilege this evening of speaking at the Hillcrest Country Club to members of the club who had gathered for their annual United Jewish Fund dinner. They gather each year at a formal dinner and make their financial commitments to support the much-needed work of the organized Jewish community of Los Angeles.
I was invited to speak as President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and because the individual who served as chair for the evening is someone at whose wedding I officiated several years ago and who has subsequently become a member of my congregation.
It was a remarkable experience. I sat in awe as one person after another stood up and spoke of their passion for supporting the needs of the Jewish community and then made a significant, public financial pledge to support the UJF annual campaign of anything from just over a thousand dollars up to a million dollars in the year ahead. In spite of my natural distaste for public displays of fund raising in such a classic “old-school” style, in many ways it represented the Jewish community and Jewish values at their finest.
I learned about the Jewish community from my parents. I remember from my childhood over forty years ago when my mother was president of the Jewish Family Service agency of Santa Monica and would receive calls during the night when a Jewish transient would come through town and be in need of a place to spend the night. At the time, Jewish Family Service was the agency in town that felt responsible for the welfare of Jews in need and found a way to respond whenever the call came in. I grew up watching, listening and experiencing what it meant to be part of something bigger than the self and bigger than just our family through the volunteer work of my mother and the values that both my mother and my father lived every day.
For example, when I was a child we used to have a woman who came to our house once a week to clean. I have always remembered the day that my mother told me that the Torah teaches us that it is unethical to make her wait to receive her money after she had finished her work. I remember Mom telling me that according to the Torah if we didn’t pay her right away it would be the equivalent of stealing from her since once she finished her work the money was rightfully hers and not ours any more.
Of course my mom turned out to be quite the Torah scholar, since it so happens that we read in this week’s Torah portion exactly that lesson that she taught me those many years ago. Leviticus 19:13 says, “Don’t keep the wages of a hired worker with you overnight.” And the rabbis in their commentaries on this portion not only echo my mother’s teachings to the letter, but they point out that someone who is a daily worker is most likely living hand-to-mouth and in need of the money that they earned for that day’s work just to eat, live and feed their family. So keeping their wages “overnight” would not only be stealing from them, but possibly causing them and their families great physical hardship as well.
What makes this week’s Torah portion so profound is that it contains our ancient sages’ understanding of the meaning of life itself. Contained in the very first sentence of this portion, known as “The Holiness Code,” is the secret to the ultimate underlying values of Jewish civilization and the spiritual challenge that each and every one of us must face every day. The portion begins with these simple words: BE HOLY, FOR I YOUR GOD AM HOLY.
That’s it. That’s the secret to the meaning of life – BE HOLY. And the entire rest of this portion, and the entire Torah itself, and the entire corpus of Jewish sacred texts that have been written and taught every since are all written in order to teach us exactly what it means to “be holy.”
What makes Judaism so remarkable as a religious civilization is that being holy isn’t primarily about going off to the mountain top somewhere and meditating, or even showing up every week at services and praying. To be holy is to be a part of and act responsibly toward the larger community in which we live.
Holiness is found in Leviticus 19:18, one of the most famous of all saying from Biblical tradition which Rabbi Akiba in the Talmud called the single most important idea in the entire Torah. Rabbi Lewart has it on the license plate of her car: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It demands that we love ourselves, that we see ourselves as made in the image of God and therefore fundamentally worthwhile simply because we are a unique creation of God, and then that we demonstrate that same sense of worth to others in how we treat them as well.
The meaning of life is found in the pursuit of holiness. It is discovered in the challenge to bring holiness and godliness into our lives, into the lives of others and into the world itself each and every day. We are to imagine what the world would be like if all human beings believed that they were a sacred vessel of holiness and that every word they uttered, every act they performed, every person with whom they interacted every single day were a divinely created opportunity for being sacred vessels of holiness. That is our challenge and our spiritual opportunity.
Listening to the passion and commitment of the men and women at that dinner tonight reminded me that holiness comes not from our intentions, but from our actions. To paraphrase Gandhi, the world will be filled with holiness when we realize that it is up to us to be the spiritual change we want to see in the world.