July 20, 2024
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Responding to the Charge of ‘Holiness,’ Part II

Last time we focused on the mandate of “Kedoshim tihiyu, ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeichem,You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” In this article, we will focus on the shared belief that the overarching mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, Love your neighbor as You Love Yourself,” is the key to spiritual growth in all arenas. While the questions and ambiguities raised by our rabbis and Torah scholars regarding the challenges inherent in these mandates are legitimate, by tapping into the lessons in the parshiot we read during this propitious time in our yearly spiritual journey we can transcend and even sublimate the inherent traits that distract us from attaining this goal. In deepening our understanding on the mandate of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” our commentators direct our attention to the insertion of the word “kamocha” at the tail end of this mitzvah. They explains that the charge of loving others as one loves oneself intimates that before we can love others we must also love ourselves. We also learn that this self-love is not to be mistaken for what we label as “narcissism,” “egotism” and all the characteristics associated with “self-absorption.” Rather, it signals the ability to become one with our own tz’elem Elokim and the holy souls of others. Viewed through this lens, it becomes clear that destructive traits such as jealousy and judgmentalism blind us from recognizing, appreciating and loving ourselves; and at the same time, they drive us to hate those who possess the pieces we believe are missing in our lives.

I can’t think of a better time for working on spiritual growth than during the period of Sefirat HaOmer. This is because as we count “up” the days and elevate our own kedusha, we are preparing ourselves for the most auspicious event in our Jewish history. As we celebrate Shavuot we must never forget that every member of klal Yisrael was present and united in receiving and accepting the Torah. We learn that if even one person was missing, the “Main Event” would have been canceled. Thus viewed, it was with the gifting of the Torah on the modest mountain of Har Sinai that Hashem showered all of His children with the same measure of love. In doing so, He was a role model in how we are meant to interact with one another. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, in his parsha class, adds that the focus here is not on forcing ourselves to “feel” love, which some feel could be a mission impossible. Rather, it challenges us to condition ourselves to “treat” others in a loving way. We can do so by acting toward others in a non-judgmental, kind and compassionate manner, with the measures of respect, consideration and leniency we want Hashem and other to shower upon us.

This year, as many of my readers know, I am spending a great deal of time in the home of my sister Adele and brother-in-law Dov. Unfortunately, she is suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease. Yet, bli ayin hara, she has exceeded the predictions of those who recommended letting her go. This, I believe, is because she answers to God’s plan for her and senses the tender, loving care of Hakadosh Baruch Hu and Dov. As I watch the two of them, bonded in this shared mission, I am reminded of Rabbi Goldberg’s textual analysis on the wording associated with the kohen’s obligation to avoid tamei meit, contaminating himself by contact with a deceased. Yet, there are seven cases, primarily close blood relatives, whereby he is exempt from this prohibition; and it is in referencing what he calls a “romantic Kli Yakar” that we learn an important lesson on how to understand the depth of the obligation to “love” others. The Torah states: “Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron… ‘To a dead person he shall not become impure among his people; except l’sh’eiro hakarov: 1) his relative who is closest to him 2)to his mother 3) to his father 4) to his son 5) to his daughter 6) to his brother 7) and to his “achoto…hakrova, his sister…who is close to him.” The Kli Yakar raises and responds to ambiguities in the wording. First, he wonders why the wife is not listed by her title as “ishtoh,” the typical word used to designate her status. Instead she is listed as “sh’eiro, the relative who is closest to him.” Moreover, if she is designated as a close relative, why then did the Torah not refer to the more common term krovah, as in the case of the sister. And third, why does the word sh’eiro, reflecting her status, appear in the masculine form rather than the feminine, as reflected in the word krovah when referring to the sister?

In responding to these questions, the Kli Yakar offers an explanation offered in Gemara Yevamot. The rabbis begin by making a distinction between the manner in which the husband and the wife contribute to the marriage. They explain that the man’s contribution to the home is that he brings in the gomer, the raw material, while the wife is responsible for transforming the raw material into a tzurah, a structure or form that renders the raw material as useful. The Gemara offers examples associated with life in antiquity; but we can all think of modern-day equivalents. For example, the man shears the sheep and brings in the wool. Yet, it is the woman who turns the wool into the garments that keep him warm. In a similar fashion, the man brings in the wheat, and the woman turns it into the flour she uses in baking the delicious bread and challah, with which she nourishes her husband. Indeed, no one can deny that until this day it is the woman who is typically responsible for providing the framework for the home, guiding and organizing their husbands. Rabbi Goldberg adds humor to this explanation by raising the question: “What would men be without women? They would be holding bushels of flour and crates of wood, but remaining cold and hungry. Moreover, the Gemara translates the word she’airo as a “provider/nourisher.” In this role, she gives him life. Moreover, in the process of eating, the food is absorbed into one’s body. Thus viewed, when the husband takes in the nourishment provided by the source, his wife, she becomes one with him.

I understand how the Kli Yakar’s insights reflect a portrait of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” reflecting a level of selflessness that possesses a fairy tale quality. Yet the past months that I have spent with my sister and brother-in-law on a near-daily basis bear testimony to the potential for kedusha we all possess. When I came back after Passover, Dov shared his Seder experience with a big smile on his face. He related how he was able to bring the Seder into their bedroom, and that she was awake and maintained eye contact a good part of the time. He added that he only left the room for “15 minutes.” He did so because my amazing, selfless, empathic brother-in-law is keenly sensitive to every nuance or tinge of emotion on my sister’s face; since she obtains her nourishment through a feeding tube and derives no pleasure from the act of eating, it impacts on the time spent and the pleasure gained from eating. This is not a fairy tale but a true-life example of how ordinary people can rise to extraordinary heights of kedusha and selflessness.

Indeed, Dov’s feelings and actions embody the heart/soul concept of ishto k’gufo, a man’s wife is like his soul, rendering them as one. He also reflects the positivism and strength of emunah of Rabbi Akiva, who championed the mitzvah of “loving the Torah way” and never allowed his personal tragedies, or those of the nation, to compromise his belief in God’s plan,

Yet, as much as I want to understand why these amazing individuals are exposed to such suffering, I know there is no answer to the “lamah, why?” I do, however, understand the Rav’s belief that there is another question that can be answered, and that is “l’mah, for what reason?” Indeed, in observing this 17-year courageous journey I learned how every one of us can reach for holiness, react with love and even experience joy in the face of difficult life experiences. This is the answer to my question regarding “l’mah?” I have no doubt I Hashem placed me at the side of Adele and Dov to take full advantage of this life lesson Rabbi Goldberg refers to as a journey to “becoming the best version of the person or couple Hashem expects us to be.” I plan to take full advantage of this opportunity and ask my readers to join in davening for a refuah shleima for Adul bat Alte Chaya. May we all be gifted with the geula shleima and an end to all our suffering.

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA


Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with training in Imago and EFT. She also facilitates a chavruta in cyberspace on the weekly parsha, edited by Debbie Friedman. She can be reached at [email protected].

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