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Our Uniqueness is the Key

Having just completed our celebration of the Pesach holiday and last week’s commemoration of the horrors of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, fresh in our memory is the historical record of our ostracism, isolation, vilification, and attempted annihilation by various societies and governments over the last 2000 years. The Haggadah references this phenomenon when we read, “ In every generation there arise those who want to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed is He saves us from their hand.” We need to ask, what creates this reaction in others to our existence? The very name of this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, this one word, encapsulates the answer.

Kedoshim derives from the word קודש, “kodesh.” Often translated as “holy,” or “sacred,” a better translation would be “special,” or “unique.” The cup I use for reciting Kiddush, “Kiddush cup,” is so termed because it is only used for drinking wine on special occasions, Shabbat or Yom Tov. If I used that same cup all the time when drinking (water, juice, wine, beer, or soda), it would not be special.

 The second verse of this week’s parsha challenges us, קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני…, “You (the Jewish people) be special/unique because I, Hashem, am special, unique.” The Jewish people, of course, are unique and special only if they live differently than everyone else. But this uniqueness is not to be an end in itself, just for the sake of being different. Rather, being different is a result of our responsibility to ourselves and others to model the pathway to the high level of human existence all people can attain.

We should not be surprised, therefore, that later in our Torah portion we come across directives concerning converts. Given our social history described above, why would anyone of their own free will convert to Judaism? But this very phenomenon attests to the fact that proper modeling of life can lead others to make life-altering changes in how they live. Regarding the convert the Torah instructs in two specific mitzvot. “You shall not taunt him. You shall love him as yourself.” (Vayikra 19: 32-34) Verse 34 concludes with the reason for these two commands, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

But we must ask, what is the need for these two specific commands? We are already enjoined by the Torah, “do not abuse any person, and “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Isn’t the convert, then,  already included and protected by these two commands? Why the need for two additional commands? Furthermore, why does the Torah provide a reason or explanation for these special mitzvot regarding a convert?

Converts are in a very vulnerable situation. In fact, the Hebrew term for a convert is גר, meaning “stranger.” No longer practicing their previous lifestyle, converts are estranged from their former group. At the same time, they may not be fully accepted by their new group, the Jews. In short, converts face the distinct possibility of being shunned or ostracized by both their old and new associates.

Here, the Torah comes along and tells us, the “card carrying members” of the convert’s new group, to be on guard about our own shortcomings. Looking down at a convert points out serious flaws within ourselves. This attitude stems from base parts in our own psychology. One is the mechanism of denial, which attempts to protect us from our painful reality. Another powerful, internal force at play functions to determine our friends and associates by the shallow emotion of identification.

These flawed character traits can quickly surface and are on display by hurtful and taunting words hurled at the convert, or behind his/her back. No wonder that the Haggadah includes the honest and true account that our forefather, Terach, was an idol worshiper. In truth and with full disclosure, our philosophical lineage is no different than the convert’s. We must recognize our own process in coming to the correct way of life. It was solely due to the teaching and modeling of our father, Abraham.

Moreover, the convert has freely chosen as the Rambam writes, “come under the wings of Hashem’s divine presence.” By dint of his or her own strength of intellect and personal fortitude, the convert has decided to fully align his or her life with the will of God, regardless of any personal harm that may come as a consequence of this choice. “Hashem loves converts, as the Torah states, ‘I, God, love a convert.’” (Rambam, Laws of Conduct, 6:4)

Therefore, any natural born Jew, who truly lives in line with the Torah, must also love the convert. Not too, would be tantamount to denying God’s plan for mankind. The Torah therefore reminds us here, by the laws of a convert, that we too were subject to societal rejection in Egypt, “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Let us commit to use last week’s commemoration of the Shoah and this week’s Yom HaZikaron and celebration of Yom Haatzmaut to tap into and stimulate the high potential of life every person can achieve. How can we accomplish that goal? Only by us being “kadosh,” distinct, special and unique. My good friend and teacher, Rabbi Reuven Mann, often remarked about the Hatikvah, that the words להיות עם חפשי, “to be a free nation,” should be changed to  להיות עם קודש, “to be a holy (unique, special) nation.” Only when we relate to others in that framework can we be “the light to the nations,” that the prophet Isaiah tells us God selected us to be. At that time all animosity toward us will cease.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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