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Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

What makes you human?

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Credit: Freeimages.com/Miamiamia 

What is the defining factor of human beings? What makes humans human? Or are we just glorified mammals, another warm blooded species?

Traditional Jewish literature definitely views human beings as separate from, and higher than, the animal kingdom. But it uses a seemingly unusual euphemism to refer to humans: Humans are referred to as “medaber” (literally, “speaker”).

 

Interesting, isn’t it, that the defining factor of humans seems to be the fact that we can speak? Why not focus on our intelligence? That would seem more logical. Why is speech granted such overriding significance?

On a basic level, words, our capacity for speech, is extremely powerful; it’s how we connect with others and how we influence others (or get influenced by them). Using positive or negative words can have an effect on our mood.  I’m sure by now you’ve come to acknowledge the fallacy of the schoolyard rhyme “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We are all aware of the power words have to hurt or heal.

But there’s more to it.

Speech is our most profound way of partnering with G-d in creation. The Torah describes G-d creating the world through speech. Our speech, similar to G-d’s speech, can create too. When we use positive words to interact with our family; when we ensure that the terms we use when thinking about ourselves are good and encouraging, we create a positive reality.

Speech can transform someone into a new person, speech can inspire confidence and creativity. Conversely, speech can have terribly detrimental results when mishandled.

This week’s Torah portion (which by the way, is named “Emor”-“speak”) begins with an example of positive speech and ends with an example of negative speech. Speech is extremely powerful as it has the ability to create and impact someone in a positive manner. It’s also a very dangerous tool because it can lead to devastating results.

Our speech has the ability to create the reality that we inhabit. Be sure to speak in positive terms to others and use only positive when speaking to yourself - before long you’ll be well on your way to creating a better environment.

Would you want a presidential candidate to have this trait?

It’s not a commonly referred to trait. It’s often misunderstood and if a presidential candidate would profess to possess it, the media would hound them as a religious radical. What is it?

Holiness.

It’s not commonly referenced and it’s highly misunderstood.

Put it this way - what do you imagine when thinking of holiness? Most people would answer things that imply being removed and distant from this physical reality. They associate holiness with angels and asceticism.

In reality, true holiness is associated with G-d. And limiting G-d to being distant from this world is incorrect. In fact, assigning any sort of limitation on G-d’s holiness is incorrect. The ultimate expression of holiness is found at the extremes, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low.

While we cannot reach the highest levels of holiness and spirituality -  we are limited beings who’ve been placed in this limited, physical world after all - we can however engage and connect with the holiness to be found at the lowest of the low, in this physical world.

In fact, this is the instruction found in the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion. We are instructed to be holy; it’s actually a mitzvah. It’s not instructing us about distancing ourselves from bad and being holy by separating ourselves from the physical world. It’s guiding us to be holy through our daily interactions.

Everything that we do can be done in one of two ways; a selfish, self centered manner or in an elevated, purposeful and G-d centered manner. When we focus on living according to G-d’s will, in accordance with our purpose, we connect to the most elevated holiness possible. Not only that, when we live in such a manner, we experience our true purpose by aligning our physical reality with our souls' preferred state of connection.

Why did he need to be married?

You can get a pretty good sense of what Judaism is all about by analyzing some of the observances of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. (Why am I talking about Yom Kippur hardly a week after Passover? Study this week’s Torah portion and you’ll find out.)

Obviously, the most famous Yom Kippur lesson is the ability to obtain forgiveness from G-d. Here’s something that is less famous perhaps, but extremely relevant. It’s a seemingly small detail that sheds a lot of light. It’s related to the Yom Kippur ritual as it was observed in the Holy Temple many years ago.

The individual who was at the center of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple was the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. He would do all the service of the day. What were the criteria to being a High Priest? Obviously he had to be a Kohen, a descendant of Aharon the first High Priest. But not just any Kohen was eligible for the position, he also had to be a learned and saintly man.

So far, all understandable requirements.

But there is another - he had to be married. If he was single, he would not be eligible for the position of High Priest.

Think about it for a minute; it’s a little strange, isn’t it? I mean, it’s understandable that he needs to be righteous and scholarly, but married? What has that to do with serving in the Temple on Yom Kippur? In fact, not only did he have to be married, the very first place he was required to go after completing the Yom Kippur service was back home.

There must be something to it; marriage is somehow connected to his role as High Priest. Not only that, this requirement also clarifies our role as Jews in this world.

Unlike other belief systems, the Torah guides an individual how to live their life within this physical world. Not how to remove themselves from the world but how to integrate G-dliness and holiness in their everyday life.

The purpose of the High Priest was not to enable detachment from the mundane, rather his role was to model healthy engagement with the physical world. The atonement of Yom Kippur is necessary when one falls short of this goal. Whether in an egregious manner by directly rebelling against G-d’s will or by simply living an entirely self centered existence, ignoring one’s purpose of being, the effect is the same: a breach in the cohesiveness of the spiritual and the physical.

Our role is to engender elevation of the physical and mundane so that it be in cohesion with, and elevated by, the spiritual and holy. If one is disengaged from the physical world, one cannot affect it. The High Priest, working in the Temple on Yom Kippur to realign the physical and spiritual, must be married, highlighting his connection and engagement in the world that he is attempting to elevate.

Although all this talk of High Priests and Temples can easily make your eyes glaze over, take a minute to translate this message to yourself in your own life. We all have areas of our life that are more connected and areas of life that are less so. Take a moment to consider how to unite the fragments, how to elevate the mundane. In your own life.

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