All the Community

(Dvar Torah delivered Friday evening 5/4/12 - Shabbat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim)

I still receive in the mail each month the bulletin from Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, New York, where I served as rabbi from 1999 to 2005.  In this month’s article from Temple Beth Israel’s current president Larry Soroka, Larry questions the fact that they have American and Israeli flags on the bima of their sanctuary. 

In my last position before coming to Duluth, at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, there were no flags in the sanctuary and it would have been very controversial to introduce them there.

Here at Temple Israel, I’m personally very happy that we have the American and Israeli flags on our bima.  To my mind, the presence of the Israeli flag on our bima reminds us that, as Jews, we are connected by history and faith to the ancestral homeland of our people.  Amid all its achievements and amid all its challenges --  the security and well-being of the State of Israel is of critical important to our Jewish identity.    

And it has long been the Jewish custom to pray for the well-being of the country in which we live, back to the time of the Babylonian exile, as we learn from the words of Jeremiah 29:7 ---


ז וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת-שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר, אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַעֲדָהּ, אֶל-יְהוָה: כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שָׁלוֹם.

7 Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Eternal in its behalf; for in its peace shall you have peace.

The presence of the American flag on our bima reminds us not only of Jeremiah’s ancient message, but also of the special blessings that we have as Americans.  For the United States, amid all its achievements and all its challenges, remains unique in the history of the world with respect to the opportunities for integration and security that it has afforded the Jewish people. 

President George Washington famously gave expression to these sentiments in his letter to the members of the Touro, Rhode Island Jewish community in 1790.  He wrote:

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. […]

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

How do we apply the teachings of our Jewish tradition to our contemporary situation as citizens and residents of this country?

Parshat Kedoshim, the second of the two Torah portions in this week’s double portion Acharei Mot – Kedoshim, prompts us to reflect on how we are called upon to concern ourselves with the needs of the community.

The parasha begins (at Lev. 19: 1-2): 


א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.

1 The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying:

ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם--קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

2 Speak to all the community of the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy; for I the Eternal your God am holy.

“Kawl adat bney yisra’el”/ “all the community of the Children of Israel” –   This is a very rare formulation in the Torah.  Usually the text says simply  “daber el bney yisra’el”/ “speak to the children of Israel” – but here, with respect to the commandment to be holy, the text says not just “speak to the children of Israel” but rather “speak to the whole community of the children of Israel.”

The medieval commentator Rashi explains that this means that the mitzvot outlined in Leviticus 19, including such famous ones as

·         Loving your neighbor as yourself  ---  and

·         Not standing idly by the blood of your neighbor --- and

·         Rising before the aged and showing deference to the old --- and

·         Leaving the gleanings of your harvest for the poor and the stranger – and

·         Not falsifying measures of length, weight or capacity

That all these mitzvot were conveyed to all the people together, whereas the other commandments were relayed by Moses to small groups at a time (Rashi on Lev. 19:2).

But, why were these precepts so important as to require that they be spoken in full assembly?  The classic midrash “Sifra” explains that the commandments in Leviticus 19 include a repetition or paraphrase of all of the Ten Commandments.  And Nachmanides, (the Spanish Jewish commentator who lived from 1195 to 1270) further observes that the command “You shall be holy for I the Eternal your God am holy” implies that we should go beyond the letter of the law in seeking moderation in personal behavior and compromise in our interpersonal dealings.  (See Nachmanides on Lev. 19:2)

Holiness/kedushah is thus an overall way of relating to one another, of establishing the social contract for our community, and of coming nearer to God. 

What about this “kawl adat bnei yisra’el” (“The whole community of the children of Israel) of which the Torah speaks, and which Rashi describes as a “hakhel” (“public assembly”) –  a word linguistically related to the word “kehillah” meaning “congregation?”

Two major implications flow from this:

First – That being holy is the task for every person in the community, not just an especially pious few, not just an elite leadership.  Rather, each one of us should seek out ways to be Godly in our own conduct.

Second – Following the teaching of the Sefat Emet – that we should seek the path of holiness with every part of our being, for the Sefat Emet (also known as Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger who lived from 1847 to 1905) –taught that the “congregation” or “community” or “assembly” referred to in Leviticus 19:2 also refers to the assembly of 248 limbs and body parts within each person.  (See Rabbi Arthur Green, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Jewish Publication Society, 1998, p. 186)

Just as in the words of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 where we speak of loving God, bechawl levavekha, uvekhawl nafshekha, uvekhawl me’dekha --  with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”

Ultimately, the verse: 


ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם--קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

2 Speak to all the community of the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy; for I the Eternal your God am holy.


teaches us that only by coming together as a community can we achieve holiness.  Holiness is not something to be sought in isolation from one another. 

Like Jews of every generation, we face the challenge of applying the words of our ancient tradition to the circumstances of the present day.   The Torah’s formulation “kawl adat bnai yisra’el”/ “all the community of the Children of Israel” originated at a time when our communal life was generally autonomous and separate from those of other communities though --- to be sure – we are also commanded in Leviticus 19: 33-34:



לג וְכִי-יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר, בְּאַרְצְכֶם--לֹא תוֹנוּ, אֹתוֹ.

33 And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.

לד כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ--כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

34 The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the native-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for your were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God.


Today we need to come to our own conclusions regarding how the communitarian values portrayed in Torah passages such as those in Parshat Kedoshim apply to our role as citizens of our state and nation. Scripture is clear about the importance of providing for the needs of the poor, and of caring for the earth. 

We are our brothers and our sisters keepers. 

We are placed on the earth to guard it and tend to it – ultimately recognizing that it belongs not to us but to God. 

But how does this translate into individual virtue?  And how does this translate into a societal agenda?

Especially in an election year, we are all aware that this is the stuff of spirited debate – and it’s important that that debate be conducted with civility and mutual respect.

© Rabbi David Steinberg 5772/2012

Posted on May 8, 2012 .