24 Apr 2014

Kedoshim 5774: Sacred Singularity

Kedoshim 5774: Sacred Singularity
There is a delightful scene in Disney’s “Mary Poppins” in which Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke, is making colorful chalk drawings on the London pavement. As he faces the ground, a silhouette appears in the shape of what seems to be a woman’s head, wearing a hat, with a flower sticking out at the top. Still looking down at the silhouette, Bert shouts: “Wait! Don’t move a muscle…” and begins to outline the silhouette… “Stay right where you are…I’d know that silhouette anywhere…MARY POPPINS!!”  By only seeing a shadow of her head and hat, Bert was able to detect that it was Mary Poppins standing near him.

The way that Bert identified Mary Poppins is analogous to how we identify G-d. We do not “see” or know G-d directly. We know Him, instead, by how He expresses Himself, or the silhouette that He casts. Torah teaches us that G-d’s silhouette is in fact the entirety of Creation as G-d is reflected in all that exists. Creation is what G-d Himself refers to as “His ways.”

We learn this from an important dialogue in the book of Exodus between Moshe and G-d. “Show me Your ways that I may know You,”[1] Moshe asks. G-d responds saying “I will pass all of my good upon your face.” Rambam explains[2] that all of G-d’s good refers to all of Creation as it says, “And G-d saw all that He had made and it was very good.[3] From this we learn that through examining the matrix of Creation, we come to know G-d, and we thus better understand the Torah’s commandment to “walk in His ways.” [4]

We walk in G-d’s ways when we emulate the attributes that G-d expresses in Creation. One of the most prominent and fundamental attributes expressed in Creation is individuality. It is the attribute of individuality, synonymous in Hebrew with sanctity, that we are charged with achieving in this week’s parasha.

Be kedoshim for I, the Lord your G-d, am kadosh. (19:2) 

As Rashi points out in his commentary on this verse[5], something or someone who is kadosh is set apart or singular in nature. The Torah’s charge to be kadosh is a charge to genuinely cultivate and fulfill our personal and national individuality and, in doing so, become sacred and connected with G-d.

One point that is repeated throughout Genesis and that emerges from our observations of the universe is that diversity is its hallmark.

plants that seed forth seedafter their kind. (Gen., 1:11)

…trees that yield fruit…after their kind. (ibid., 1:12)

waters swarm with living beings…fowl fly…living beings that crawl about…after their kind (ibid., 1:20-21)

herd-animals…and the wildlife of the earth after their kind. (ibid., 1:24)

Whether it be stars or planets, snow flakes or leaves on a tree, fingerprints or granules of sand, the natural world celebrates difference. The ubiquitous diversity in the universe expresses the singular nature of its Maker. As G-d is one, His creations express His unity in their individuality. Indeed, it is this aspect of G-d that has become the Jewish catechism in the Shema Yisrael.

Hear O Israel…G-d is One. (Deut., 6:4)

And it is told in the Midrash that G-d responds with an equal statement about the uniqueness of Israel:

Who is like your nation Israel? A single nation upon the earth! (II Samuel, 7:23)

Because uniqueness is a key intent in G-d’s Creation, we lose our sanctity both as individuals and a nation when we allow ourselves to simply blend in to the world’s backdrop and be no more than a homogeneous face in the crowd. In doing so it is almost an affront to G-d by diminishing the vibrant element of His creation that only we can express. Yet, when we stand out, and make our own meaningful and distinct contributions to the world, that are not arbitrary, but that come from a consistent and integrated identity, we take our place as incomparable constituents of Creation. In doing so, we express a sacred singularity that draws its unique existence from the one and only G-d. The charge to be kadosh is indeed a charge to be holy and to cherish the world’s plethora of diverse life. Each life — precious, sacred, and irreplaceable.

Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] Ex., 33:13

[2] Moreh Nebukhim, I:54

[3] Gen., 1:31

[4] Deut., 28:9

[5] 19:2, s.v. קדושים תהיו