Sunday, May 04, 2008

669. Holiness

Some thoughts related to this past week's parasha, Kedoshim:

One morning a week I roll out of bed at the crack of dawn or earlier, throw on clothes, and head downtown for a business networking breakfast meeting. If I'm lucky, I wake up before I arrive. Often I walk out the door too late to get there on time via subway, so instead spend an obscene amount of money on a cab.

The cab swings by the Very Big, Fancy Theater where I helped lead High Holy Day services this past fall. The theater is situated inside a glitzy mall, a temple of excess and playground for people who have much more disposable income than I. It looks too new and pretty to be in New York City, but has also redefined the landscape. It's unexpected and shakes up the neighborhood; for that reason alone, despite its essential soullessness, I kind of like this big, slick glass building.

But when I pass by in a cab on Wednesday mornings, I forget about luxury goods in the stores downstairs or $14 million apartments up above. Instead I remember how I felt while praying with and drawing energy from everyone like blood through an IV. I think of deep gold of spotlights against the theater walls, and the park in dusk as seen through a wall of windows as we emerged after Ne'ila. In that instant as the cab speeds past, the building sheds its mask and practically explodes with soul and holiness.

A few years ago during the quietest, most somber part of Yom Kippur afternoon services, the Ner Tamid ("eternal light") above the Ark went out. This is not supposed to happen; like the Olympic Torch, it stays forever lit as ritual proof of the timelessness of Torah. Except the plug got loose, and 2,000 people gasped as one at this display of human and spiritual vulnerability. Not to mention that it kind of destroyed the drama of the moment.

Then one of the maintenance men walked out to bima and, without fanfare, knelt down at the side of the Ark and put the plug back in the wall. Everyone sighed; the eternal light came back on. The rabbi and cantor kept going, didn’t miss a beat.

My first thought was, oy, and all this time I thought the light was holy, who was I kidding? It’s just a bulb. Later on I understood that the truly sacred part of the day was when we gasped together, and then sighed--the unity and steadiness of our concentration as a community.

At services on Shabbat, the rabbi noted that Parashat Kedoshim is read this year in between Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the anniversary of the State of Israel. He quoted a commentator: On Yom Ha'Atzmaut, God judged us and found us worthy of reward. On Yom HaShoah, we judge God and find God lacking. I believe we're created in God's image in both spirit and soul, as it says in Kedoshim: "I am holy so you shall be holy." But I don't think that means we're always holy, or only like God. Maybe a better analogy than a mirror is to the plug that sometimes falls out of the wall, or a building that seems to change shape when filled with prayer. Perhaps the definition of holiness--the definition of God--allows for imperfection as well as the ability to judge and then be healed from this state, to change, find each other, join together, and regain strength.

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