Building the Houses We Live In – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Shabbat Kedoshim

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, contains excerpts from the remarks of Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk, at Shabbat Worship on Friday, April 25, 2014. We encourage you to post these remarks, or to share them, to make comments below, and continue the discussion of the issues they raise.

A certain wealthy lady wanted to do a good deed. One day she saw a shabby hut in which a poor carpenter lived with a large family. She thought about it carefully and decided to go see the carpenter to discuss giving him a job. She showed the carpenter blueprints for a beautiful new house, and asked the carpenter if he would build her such a house on a certain lovely spot on a hill on the edge of town.

“I want it to be as fine and sturdy as possible,” she said. “Use only the best materials and employ only the best workers. Spare no expense to make it the finest house in town.” The woman said she was going on a journey and hoped the house would be ready when she returned.

Well, the carpenter saw his chance. Other people with the same opportunity would make plenty of profit for themselves on the side—so why shouldn’t he? So, he skimped on the materials. He employed unqualified and inexpensive help, and covered their mistakes with extra coats of paint. When the rich woman returned to the town, the house was finished. The carpenter brought the keys to her.

“I followed your instructions,” he said. “I have completed the house as you told me—as fine and sturdy as possible.”

“I’m glad,” said the woman. “Here are the keys. They are yours. I had you build that house for yourself. You and your family are to live in it.”

Always, we are building the houses we live in. Our deeds, our habits, our interests, our standards, these things are built day by day. And we dwell within them for the rest of our lives. That is a message consistent with how we might reflect on each day’s endeavors, each week’s thoughts that accrue until on Shabbat we can pause and, like a carpenter amidst the sweat and toil of building a home, lay down our hammers and drills and take stock of what we have been building.

This week’s Torah portion for me- Kedoshim- is an annual reminder of the need to step back and ask ourselves what home are we living in. Kedoshim Tiheyu- You shall be holy, our Torah passage begins in the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, for I the Eternal God am holy. If properly utilized, this moment of hearing those verses of Torah recited presses us to step back – and to honestly “check” ourselves against the values we’ve espoused from our lips with easy promises, made to those who asked us to build a house that was fine, sturdy and that would endure the storms life would throw at it. This is especially true for those of us who live thoroughly modern lives as well as Jewish lives- seeking to integrate our outlook on being part of modern culture with the rootedness we feel in Jewish traditions and the accomplishment of mitzvot.

This portion points out to us how to carry that outlook into every public commitment we make- not strictly to religious or spiritual endeavors. We are taught how to integrate our mitzvah of living holy lives in the presence of those who are touched with disabilities such as blindness or hearing impairment. We are taught in this portion how our Jewish sensibilities affect what we do with the money that has been earned by the carpenters, the painters, the landscapers or others who might work on projects for us in our homes- in the mitzvah of not carrying the wages of a laborer over until morning, paying him or her promptly for work they have completed. We are taught most poignantly about judging others fairly- not showing undue deference to someone who is more wealthy or even someone who is improverished. Rather Torah commands a type of evenhandedness in our judgments. Isn’t that such a difficult commandment to fulfill?

Finally, and perhaps most famously- the passage in this week’s portion tells us V’ahavta L’reyecha Camocha- to show a committed love to our neighbors just as we would ourselves. This basic notion of ordering our encounters with neighbors in the universe is tested regularly. In two different interfaith dialogue events in which I took part this week, the difficulty of fulfilling this commandment came up.

Last night, at the Anti Defamation League’s annual colloquium on behalf of the Jewish community with the Catholic Diocese, it was raised in terms of a question raised by one of our members in attendance. A member of our temple candidly asked the speakers, Why hatefulness and anti-Semitism has persisted if indeed Christians are required to imitate Jesus who in the New Testament repeats this instruction to love your neighbor?His question reflected the tension that was already palpable in the room, not two weeks after gun violence was committed in Kansas City, by a hateful man seeking Jews to shoot and having killed 3 Christians visiting the campuses of the Jewish Community Center and the Shalom Village living center there.

Just the night before that, I had been one of the speakers at an interfaith dialogue event hosted at the Maltz Museum, a program called “Do Not Hate Your Brother in Your Heart” as part of the museum’s recent “Begin the Conversation” series. This program involved me and my dear friend Imam Mohamed Magid.

I was fascinated by one of the teachings offered by Imam Magid, when he explained that to his mind and after his thorough survey of reading the religious texts of Jews, Christians and the teachings of the Qu’ran- we are encouraged to love the other not simply by avoiding the doing of what is hateful to us… but rather we must show our neighbor enough love and attention to learn what is hateful to them- and to not do that either. In other words, if I am going to host you in my home- or if I am going to share a community with you- I should inquire deeply enough into your practice and your custom to understand what would be upsetting to you, not simply base my attention to you on what I need from moment to moment. This seems like a very difficult standard to bear. And honestly on reflection over my adult life, I wonder if I am patient and caring enough to fulfill such a standard!

I am just now recalling a time when my eldest son was just a baby and he was mine 3 days a week in New York City. I was in the winter of  my final year of rabbinical school and so I had worked hard to finish most of my coursework except for my master’s thesis preparation, and the completion of my tenure as a student rabbi at a congregation out in Westchester County.

I’d often meet up with Joanie in the city somewhere and do a “baby-hand-off”  to her at the end of her work day- before heading out to the train for my evening duties at my student pulpit.

When you are a dad acting as one of the major caregivers for your infant son, everyone in New York City wants to give you advice. About a third of the people you encounter assume you have no blazing idea what you are doing. Another third ask you if you are babysitting? This was a question which got under my skin, but I’d try to remember to love my neighbor and so I’d simply reply “no” while feeding Zachary or playing with him in a park. But what was really on my mind was, “No, caring for your own son is not babysitting. It’s called parenting. Babysitting is when I’m watching your son and you are leaving me some cash.” It’s New York City, so nearly another third of the people you encounter could care less about what you are doing with your kid. They seemed to me to be the easiest reyim (neighbors) to love.

Well, one day in the later part of the winter it was particularly cold out and so I had Z all bundled up inside his stroller when we got out of the subway at Union Square. I brought him into the Barnes and Noble bookstore and began to proceed over to the New Releases section where I saw a book on a high shelf that I had just read about in the Sunday paper. As I’m reaching for this new release hardcover, when I look back toward Z, there is an older woman with a very furrowed brow, looking into my son’s stroller and then at me, disapprovingly scowling at me.

She waits for me to make eye contact and then blurts out: “He’s too hot, I’ll tell you that much!” I got to admit. Her seven words in that moment seemed to clobber the words of the Torah: V’ahavta L’reyecha Camocha into a bruised and battered mess. I turned to her and I said, “Oh, thank you. Do you have kids?”

To which she replied, with a smile, “Yes, I do.”

“Stick to them.” I grouchily blurted back to her face. As I watched her march begrudgingly away, honestly, I got a pretty good rush in that moment.

But on reflection, tonight, I realize to myself, that all I did in that moment was to tell her that her thoughts, perhaps genuinely offered to support the comfort and attention my child needed, were worthless.

What could I have said, without compromising my principles, and without letting me feel walked all over? What might you have said?

How about: “thank you,” or “ok.” I know that either of those answers and some of the others that might be rising to your thoughts tonight, could have allowed me to demonstrate what our tradition calls the middah, the character trait or Jewish value of savlanut, patience. It certainly would have been a way of potentially not causing what the rabbis called a busha, a humiliation, on a woman who, as much as she wasn’t looking at me with a pleasant demeanor, probably meant well for my child, which is even more important to me in the world in which he lives than that I receive the attention of the community around me.

I have tried tonight to share these teachings in order to remind each of us to think about the holiness we put into the houses we build around ourselves each day. Are we choosing to act in a holy fashion? Or are we simply relying on mood or the fluctuations of whether we feel good about today to decide how we treat others? Are we using the finest materials to make up our character?

Judaism says those fine materials are the way we give to tzedekah to be generous with others, the way we repent and turn away from wrong doings, and the way we pray peacefully and accept the peaceful prayers of others. As I mentioned last week and last month, all of these character traits, what our tradition calls middot, are vital for us to raise in our community. Repairing the world begins with ourselves.

Please look carefully at some of the listings in the upcoming temple bulletin to consider if you’d like to learn with us in one of our lifelong learning classes, caring community endeavors, worship opportunities, or scholar-in-residence seminars, to allow you, in a community setting, to reflect meaningfully on what materials you and I and all of us are using to build the houses we live in every day.

Have we have used the cheapest, most flimsy materials to build the houses of our personal character and commitment? Or have we built homes that radiate generosity and hospitality, and God’s own inspiration for us to act righteously, and with human decency.

What might it mean to use the opportunities we have ahead to act with holiness?  Where does holiness live? The Jewish faith opens to us that we can interpret and question and decide how to pursue holiness in our lives and our homes. Whether we are Jewish or our kids or grandparents are Jewish, we are each touched with opportunities to strive for holiness all year- round. And Judaism tells us:

  • There is holiness when we strive to be true to the best we know.
  • There is holiness when we are kind to someone who cannot possibly be of  service to us.
  • There is holiness when we realize how important our families are to us.
  • There is holiness when we forget what divides us and remember what unites us.
  • There is holiness when we are willing to be laughed at for what we believe.
  • There is holiness when we love—truly, honestly and unselfishly.
  • There is holiness when we remember the lonely and bring cheer to those who suffer.
  • There is holiness when we share—our bread, our ideas, our  joys.
  • There is holiness when we gather to pray to the One Who gave us the power to pray.

(Adapted from M’kor Shalom of Cherry Hill, NJ Prayerbook)

Right now let us acknowledge that One Unity of all existence, the source of all life, the one who gave us the power to pray, and let us pray for the patience, the awareness, and the love that we and our neighbors so desperately need to fulfill a better world, Amen.