Holiness Requires Community

I want to thank Rabbi Amy Bardack, Director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation, for sharing some important thoughts with us this week:

In this week’s double parashah, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, we read what is known as the “Holiness Code,” which begins in Leviticus chapter 19 with a command: “You shall be holy, because I, your God, am holy.” What strikes me this year as I read this well-known verse is that this is a collective mitzvah. The Hebrew is in the plural — you, plural, shall be holy– as opposed to the singular form in which the ten commandments are stated (you, singular, shall honor your mother and father). The communal nature of this mitzvah is reinforced by the context. The Torah explicitly states that Moses must gather kol adat Bnei Yisrael, the entire community of Israel, to hear this command from God.

Rabbi Amy Bardack, Director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation

I understand this to mean that becoming holy is not an individual pursuit. It can only be achieved in community. We see this more clearly in the various mitzvot that follow. Leave gleanings for the poor. Decide matters of justice fairly. Pay a day laborer before nightfall. All these specific aspects of being holy assume a settled society. Holiness is not an elevated private experience; it exists only in the context of the day to day challenges of living with others.

Of course, it is hard to read this without thinking about the physical distancing required of us right now. The isolated conditions in which we are currently living highlight the importance of community with increased urgency. We are aware of the particular vulnerabilities of those who live alone, are sheltering far from family, or are at a developmental stage when peer connections are essential.

We often speak of loneliness as a mental health risk factor. However, research has demonstrated that loneliness can impact our physical health as well, even on the cellular level. According to Dr. Steve Cole of UCLA, loneliness activates physiological changes which result in increased risk of illness:

“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”

Dr. Steve Cole, UCLA

On the most basic level, we need to work to mitigate loneliness to ensure the physical health of our community.

The secret to becoming holy is not to separate apart and self-actualize. On the contrary, being holy takes root only in a society of caring and connection. In order to fulfill the collective command of “you shall be holy,” we need to strengthen the bonds of our community. May we be blessed and privileged to do so.

Shabbat Shalom.

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