From Bernstein to Benaroya

05.16.2016

he Chicago Cubs are off to a great start. (So, are the Mariners, but I don’t want to jinx them, so I’m keeping quiet). The Cubs have the best record in the major leagues; they’re 24-6. Why does that matter? Because the Cubs are the perennial sad sack team of baseball. They haven’t won a World Series since 1908.

What was happening in 1908? Well, in 1908, the first time-ball signifying the new year was dropped in Times Square in NYC.  Count Zeppelin announced plans for his airship to carry 100 passengers (that’s Count Zeppelin, not Led Zeppelin). Katie Mulcahey became the first woman to run afoul of NYC’s just-passed ban on females smoking in public. She declared, “No man shall dictate to me!” And, because she was unable to pay the $5 fine, she spent the night in jail.

In 1908, Simone de Beuvoir, Joan Crawford, Lawrence Welk, Bette Davis, Leo Rosten, and Edward R. Murrow were born. And, a small synagogue in Seattle, Herzl, was celebrating its second birthday.

1908 is 108 years ago. Imagine the joy of winning a World Series after waiting for 108 years. Imagine the joy of winning a World Series after waiting 2000 years! That’s the story of the Jewish people. That’s the meaning of Israel Independence Day which we celebrated this past Thursday.

And, the parallel fits. If the Cubs should win the World Series in 2016, their victory will create a powerful tale of redemption. And, the result will be that the 108 years in between and everything that happened in between will then become one, meaningful story. We love to tell stories like this. And, the greater the disparity before the story, the more meaningful and satisfying is this newly minted unity. And, today, I want to talk about what this has to do with God.

Let’s take a step into our parasha. In the opening verse of the parasha, God says to the Jewish people: Kedoshim tihiyu/Be kadosh/be holy. Why? Ki Kadosh ani Adonai eloheichem/Because I the Lord Your God am holy.

The word Kadosh in Hebrew has two opposite meanings. As Hannah taught us earlier, kadash means to distinguish. To be kadosh is to stand out. The opposite of Kodesh/holiness is chol. Chol means ordinary. Chol in Hebrew also means ‘sand’. Sand is the ultimate expression of ordinariness, because one grain of sand is just like all the other grains of sand. If you’re a grain of sand, it’s pretty hard to stand out.

And, God is the ultimate stand out artist. God is the polar opposite of ordinary. God is incomparable. We say of God ‘there is no one like you.” And, the reason that’s so important to us is that we yearn to be like that. We want to be unique. We want to be beyond compare. And, we can be—in love.

When we are ready for love, we say to another person, “I want an exclusive relationship.” It’s only in an exclusive relationship that we can genuinely say to our partner, “You are beyond compare. There is no one like you. You are kadosh/distinguished from all the others in my eyes.”

That’s why a wedding is called kiddushin/holiness. That’s why God is called an el kana/a jealous God. God wants an exclusive relationship with us, because only in an exclusive relationship can we affirm what is beyond compare in the person we love, and they in us. So, in that sense, God is the ultimate embodiment of exclusivity.

On the other hand….God is just the opposite! The Hebrew word that is most associated with God is ‘col’. “Col” means ‘all, everything.’ We say kol ha’shema tehallel yah/all living beings praise God. In the Bircat Hamazon, the prayer we say after we eat, we say “ha’zan et ha-col’—God nourishes all of life.

In the Shema, we are told to worship God b’chol levavecha, u’v’chol nafsheca, u’vechol m’odecha—with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all of our might.  And, in our daily prayers we say ‘kadosh kadosh kadosh—holy, holy, holy—what comes next?—m’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo—all of the universe is filled with the glory of God. All, all, all.

The verb kalal from which kol is derived means to include. So, God is the ultimate embodiment of inclusiveness, of comprehensiveness. But, wait a minute. How can God be the embodiment of exclusiveness and inclusiveness at the same time? To answer that question, let’s take a quick tour of the prayer service. The prayer service tells a story—and it’s a story about God and about us.

At the beginning of the prayer service, there is a beautiful prayer about the human body. It says, ‘blessed are You, God…asher yatzar et ha’adam b’chochma….who created human beings with chochma/wisdom…..what does that mean?  God, You created all of these different organs—lungs, a heart, kidneys, a liver.  Each one of these parts has a unique purpose. We couldn’t survive if one of them failed.

So, we are, in a sense, a plurality, a community of organs. And, yet, we are one.   No one would say ‘I’m in my heart and not in my liver’. ‘This is the genius of God’, we say. God can hold together all of this distinctiveness inside of us. Yet, in the midst of all this separateness, there is unity.

This is step one. Now, the prayerbook goes further. It says, ‘you think that’s cool?’ Now, think of the entire universe as one human body. In our daily prayers, we say ‘ma rabu maasecha Adonai/how fantastic are your creations God—and if you look at the original context of  that verse in psalm 104, it means—look at the stunning variety of creation—foxes, lions, birds, sea creatures large and small. It’s amazing!

‘And, yet’, the prayer goes on—‘kulam b’chochah asita—all of them were created with chochma/wisdom’. The same word we used to describe the unity of the varied organs of the human body now applies to the unity in the varied organs of the universe. Somehow, there is something that connects the smallest virus to the most expansive galaxy.

And, that is a pretty good trick to pull off. Because the universe is much vaster than the human body. And, greater the distance between two starting points, the more dynamic is the unity that pulls them together. We are more interesting when we are both Bernstein and Benaroya, because Spanish is so incredibly different from German. And, a unity that incorporates both is a dynamic unity.

To go from slavery to the presidency of the United States is to travel an enormous emotional distance. And, the story that unites those two moments in time in a meaningful way is a very powerful story. To go from murderous, kidnapping brother to rescuing, self-sacrificing brother is to travel an enormous emotional distance. This is the story of Joseph. That the same potential exists within one person is the fundamental insight of monotheism.

It would not seem possible for the wolf to lie down with the lamb. Yet, the Bible teaches us that each one of us has inside of us a wolf and a lamb, an aggressive, ambitious side and a caring, loving side. And, we expect that an emotionally healthy person will make peace between them. Someone who acts like a wolf one day and a lamb the next day is not right. We expect ourselves to make a unity out of the varied creatures that live inside of us and outside of us. And, to aspire to that kind of unity is what it means to worship the one God.

To worship one God is to aspire to create one fantastic story out of the most distant elements. The more distant the elements, the better the story. Anyone can write a story in which the Yankees win the World Series. But, to overcome the distance between where the Cubs have been and where they want to be—that’s a story that appeals to the deepest part of our nature.

God is the one who creates both evening and morning and calls them yom echad/one day—and declares that they are good. We are called upon to see the days and nights of our lives as part of one story. We are called upon to look at people who are as different from each other as day and night, and to figure out a way to make them part of one great saga. Because, a story that incorporates those differences is so much more interesting and so much more dynamic than a story which divides the world into separate categories that never meet.

The Torah teaches us that God loves the elephant and the flea, and wants us to love them, too. Baruch m’shaneh ha’briot. Blessed is God who has created variety among His creatures and inside of them—and whose greatest desire is for the children to get along.