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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

May 1, 2020

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Rolling light away from darkness, darkness from light, the waters above from the waters below, creating a space in the middle, a separation. Evening, and morning, day 1, day 2, until the seventh day, a day of rest, today, Shabbat.

So begins our Torah.

In the beginning of my day, the sun rolled out from behind its blanket of clouds. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it, suddenly - a patch of blue sky. I grabbed my shoes and ran outside to take a walk in that space in time, that separation between water and water, the rakia, the gap, the middle, the place between the morning and afternoon rainstorms in our forecast today.

In the middle. I’ll come back to the middle, because when I opened my door and started my walk, I wasn’t thinking about the middle. I was aiming for the end. Most of you know I live in Great Barrington, in a neighborhood tucked between the center of town and East Mountain State forest. Most of the quiet side streets are dead ends, terminating at the beginning of the woods. For the past few days, I’ve been picking a different neighborhood road and taking it to the end. Walking until I ran out of road. I am trying to get to the end - of my neighborhood, of the things I can not control, of this time of separation.

In the end of our Torah, Moses, our prophet and leader, dies and is buried on a mountaintop. Moses, the only prophet who spoke to God panim el panim - how I wish I could be seeing all of you - face to face. And a new generation, under the leadership of Joshua, enters the Promised Land. It’s the end of Moses’ story, but it’s not the end of the story of the Jewish people - a story with no end, that we live and create every day. 

If we’re not at the beginning, and we can’t ever truly be at the end, then we can take some comfort in knowing where we are: in the middle.

In the middle of the Torah, in the book of Leviticus, in the heart, the lev of our sacred text, we read these words, today, this week: You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy. 

In the middle, a directive so simple to say and impossible to describe: be holy.

Hebrew grammar has a funny way about it. That same phrase, k’doshim tihiyu, could be translated in several ways. It could be heard as a command: be holy. Or as an invitation: you shall be holy. Or as aspirational and inspirational: in the future, you will be holy. 

Commanded, invited, and inspired. In the middle, at our core, we are holy.

These words introduce The Holiness Code, a series of laws and ethics that offer one way to understand how be holy. As I read this week’s Torah portion, I couldn’t help but wish for a Holiness Code for the Middle of The Coronavirus Pandemic. In so many ways, in so many areas of our lives, we are functioning without a code. Without guidelines, or a map. We’re lost in the middle, in the wilderness. How can we be holy without direction?

Certainly, we have hints at leadership, order, and a path forward. How a simple act of gemilut chasasim - loving kindness - can send ripples out into the universe. We’re not at the beginning anymore, after all. We are solidly in the middle.

Each day, from Passover to our next holiday, Shavuot, we count the omer. Seven weeks of seven days each, 49 days from slavery in Egypt to revelation at mount Sinai - the moment when we received our Torah, the moment that continues today and every day. While counting the omer can be a fulfilling spiritual practice, it can also mirror our experience in social isolation. Counting each day to distinguish it from the next. Calling a day Friday to remember that it’s not Thursday. There was evening, and there was morning - the seven millionth day of staying at home.

I can’t tell you what part of the middle we’re in right now, because I don’t know when this period of time will end. We’re starting to see the edges, maybe, but no one really knows, not yet. 

What I can tell you is that I’m finding a new holiness code by tapping into our ancient wisdom. In the middle, we aspire to be holy, because God is holy.

This morning, on my walk, as I made my way back from the end of the neighborhood and the beginning of the woods, I reluctantly returned to the middle. Rain clouds rolled back in, over the tops of the mountains, creating that gap between earth and heavens, that bold row of blue in the middle, between the green mountain ridge and the darkening sky.

Caught up in big picture, I almost missed her. A fox ran right in front of me, and paused on a rock a safe distance away. We stared at each other for about five minutes, sharing the middle for a moment of meeting.

Here we are, in the middle, together. In the beginning, God created us in the Divine Image so that in the middle, we can try our hardest to be holy and at the end, one day again, we’ll be together, panim el panim - face to face.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Fri, May 29 2020 6 Sivan 5780