Ahavas Sholom – an Historic Landmark and Sacred Space

Newark's Last Remaining Synagogue born of the Great European Migration at the turn of the 20th Century

145 Broadway, Newark, NJ 07104
Phone: 973-485-2609 | Email: cahavassholom@optimum.net


Rays of Torah, May 9, 2024

From Dust and Ashes to Child of God
Parasha Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1—20:27
by Rabbi Eliyahu (Elijah) Collins  

What is the real purpose of Life? Why am I here? What meaningful pursuits are deserving of my energy, resources, and time, during the unknown fleeting years allotted to me? These probing questions have not only intrigued, but haunted humankind throughout the ages. They have echoed through academic halls and religious circles. Our angst to obtain a satisfying answer to these questions is intensified when we come to terms with the inevitable reality that all things in the physical world are transitory and hurry to the same end. Yet we endlessly strive to cope with our mortality by seeking meaning through acquisition, personal achievements, legacy, and our offspring. Still unsettled, many resign themselves to the belief that “all is vanity and striving after the wind.” Is this really all that there is to human existence?

In the introductory verse to this week’s parasha we are given the divine directive “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2).” “The message is that the original intention in creating man in the image of G’D had already had as its declared goal for this “image” to be constant (Sforno, 16 century commentator).” Holiness is not temporary state of emotional ecstasy. Contrary to the prevailing theological ideals about “holiness,” the Torah does not relate it as something you do but associates it with being. Being is often used to define life. Being conveys the essence of a life form, encompassing its actions and way of engaging and navigating its environment. G-D’s command, for humankind to be holy, provides all human beings with the highest aspiration, yes, the very reason for human existence, to mold themselves into Be’zelem Elohim- the image or shadow of G-D.

The goal of Be’zelem Elohim is exclusive to human beings. No other aspect of creation has been given this charge. All things came into existence through the Almighty declaring “Let there be”; and then it was.  They were brought forth in their perfection and through immutable law, which would dictate their existence. Hence, they are locked into their being. They need not strive to become. The fullness of their potential is realized from the onset. Animals live according to instinctual drives. They do not strive to be other than what they are. The sun has no choice in whether it will rise in the morning and give way to the moon and stars at night. However, human beings are endowed with the innate drive and ability to change, to grow, and to accentuate any part of their being that they choose. Our sages tell us that in this regard even the angels envy us. We occupy a space in creation that even celestial beings cannot attain.

Throughout history there have been many misguided efforts by human beings to manifest their G-Dly essence. The Torah relates that when the serpent enticed Eve in the garden, to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, she only acquiesced to the evil influence once the serpent declared, “Ye shall not surely die; for G-D knows that in the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be open and you will be like G-D, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4-5).” In the episode of the Tower of Babel, the entire impetus for this enormous structure was to “reach the top of the heavens.” In both ancient and modern times, many of the greatest achievements, groundbreaking discoveries in science and medicine, and remarkable advancements in technology by human beings, have been driven by the desire to be comparable to G-D. It’s so very unfortunate that the vested greatness in human beings for the purpose of imitating and recognizing his Creator has alienated us from Him.

Our strongest obstacle to the attainment of holiness is the complex duality of our nature. Rabbi Hisda relates that the Hebrew word “wayisser (and He formed)” is spelled in Hebrew with two Yods to emphasize that The One Holy, blessed be He, created man with two impulses, one good and the other evil (Berakhot 61a:3). Human beings have not only an evil inclination, but a predisposition to commit evil. As it is written, “For the imagination of man is evil from his youth.” Therefore, shaping ourselves into the image of the Creator is an arduous task that requires great work. Attainment of this goal is the result of learning to subject personal will to the Creator, to suppress urges that are prohibited by the Torah, and to achieve emotional maturity to the extent that our feelings do not impede our judgement and ability to execute justice. It demands our acknowledgment and appreciation for G-D’s creatures in the manner that he has prescribed. Above all, it requires us to follow G-D’s command even when it defies our logic and seems to be an offence to our emotional sensibilities. To become like our Creator, we must acknowledge the difference between us and Him. “Thus said the Lord, my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways. As the heaves are higher than the earth, so are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8).”

The litany of laws found in parasha Kedoshim provides a roadmap to how we can elevate our spirit over our animal nature. When we fulfill a mitzvah or adhere to a prohibition, it is a step towards shaping us into the image of G-D. Therefore, commandments given that emphasize compassion, fair treatment, righteousness, and consideration for the marginalized or vulnerable populations are often punctuated with “I am the Lord your God,” or a reference to one of the Creator’s attributes. This is the ultimate person for the commandments and why we are inclined to keep them. Everyone regardless of their nation, creed, socio-economic status, or perceived limitations is afforded the opportunity to strive to be like G-D— for the image we seek to manifest is not a physical form, but displayed through values, actions and conduct.  We observe G-d’s mitzvot (commandments) out of a desire to be a reflection of the One who created us and to achieve the ultimate purpose for our existence. We are, simply because He Is! Even the promise of reward for keeping the Torah is secondary to this pursuit. If we are successful in adopting this idea as the primary cause for Torah observance, then we will be less likely to allow our actions, and deeds and those of others, to deny us of the optimal reward in life.

We are currently counting the omer, which will culminate with Shavuot. In Kabbalistic thought, the counting of the Omer is relevant to the ten Sefirot. Each day counted has corresponding midot (character traits) assigned to it. Each day we are encouraged to think about this trait and how we express it through daily measurable practice to elevate ourselves spiritually.

The lowest level of the Tree of Life chart is “Malchut” which means Kingdom.” At the top of the chart is “Keter,” the crown. Through personification of Torah and midot, human beings can ascend from the lowest sphere of G-Dly manifestation to the highest. However, even if one ascends to the top there remains the “Ein Sof” the aspect of the Eternal that is beyond all calculation, understanding, and expression. It’s truly righteous striving that gives our life undying purpose.

Take your journey to be more like G-D and enjoy the wonderful discoveries to be revealed about your Creator, yourself, and the world you live in, as you elevate from ashes and dust. 

Shabbat Shalom.