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Jewish learning Together or Apart? Rebuilding Holy Community Across Space

By Rav Hazzan Ken Richmond `21

Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

Last week my consortium of synagogues commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, gathering in person for the first time in three years to lift up our voices together, light candles, recite prayers, and to have the rare privilege of hearing testimony from a survivor and his family. As with many events these days, we were hybrid, with an option to participate and view the event via live stream.

Many people tuned into the live stream, and one emailed me to note how few people seemed to be there in person. The in-person attendance was well below pre-COVID levels, but much higher than could be sensed in the live stream, due to camera angles and our inclination to spread out near the back of the room. This got me thinking about what it means these days to come together in community, when those in person can’t see those at home, and to a large extent, vice versa.

Our Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins with God telling Moses (Leviticus 19:2):

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כּל־עֲדַ֧תבְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Y-H-V-H your God, am holy.

I want to share with you some wisdom I received from my teachers Rabbi Nehemia Polen and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, illuminating a dialogue across time between the 11th century French commentator Rashi and the 19th century Hasidic master Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein, known as the Maor Vashemesh.

First of all, Rashi says that the addition of the words “the whole community” — כל עדת — emphasizes that this section of the Torah was so important that all the people had to gather to hear it directly from Moses.

The Maor Vashemesh reinterprets this to mean not that this passage was crucial for all to hear, but that the whole enterprise of striving for holiness needs to be done in community.

Rashi goes on to say something that seems to be contradictory to this sentiment: that “be holy” means to be aloof, to separate oneself: hevu f’rushim הֱווּ פְרוּשִׁים.

The Maor Vashemesh reads Rashi as saying that one needs to be separate from the community in order to find holiness.(1) Many of us may agree that we can find holiness in private study and prayer, and certainly, during the last two years, we have had plentiful opportunities to seek holiness alone or in smaller groups. But the Maor Vashemesh pushes back on this idea, saying:

Now it’s true that in order to save oneself from bad habits and a culture of corruption, one must indeed run away to backwoods and to separate from the masses. But [on the other hand], the only way to rise to a state of holiness is to attach oneself to people of spiritual distinction, true servants of God, joining with them in their sacred service of prayer and Torah study. The most important rule about mitzvotis to perform them in community, with other seekers of God. Then you will be able to attain supernal holiness. The more people that gather together to engage in Divine service, the more the supernal holiness comes to rest upon them… (translation by Rabbi Nehemia Polen)

What does this mean for our search for holiness as we rebuild our communities in hybrid fashion?

On the one hand, having access to community through the modern miracles of technology has been a godsend, enabling us to learn, connect, and pray in new ways. Those who have been sick with COVID, hesitant to be near other people, or homebound for any number of reasons have been able to participate in communal events, to have a shared experience with their community. And many of our events and services, taking into account those at shul and at home, have had higher attendance than previously. In a way, those participating at home, in being both apart and together with the community, have been able to fulfill another part of the Maor Vashemesh’s teaching, that we can be together with other people but focused on holiness in our own thoughts.

And on the other hand, there’s something missing when we can’t all sense each other, when some can’t easily add their singing, their reactions, their comments during and after the event, to the communal experience. When we aren’t all in the same physical space, it’s hard to be sure whose regular attendance to appreciate, whose surprise appearance to celebrate, and who is missing. And even for those who share a space, the tendency to sit towards the back and apart from one other is accentuated due to good COVID practice. Instead of the ideal that Joey Weisenberg teaches, of people gathered close together in the middle of the room in harmonizing, we’re still f’rushim, still apart.

The Torah portion will go on to detail many ways that we can be holy: showing deference to the elderly, supporting the poor, not taking advantage of those with disabilities — basically treating all people with love and respect. And as Rashi and the Maor Shemesh teach, these important mitzvot need to be heard in community and carried out in community, and we have to work harder to carry them out when we can’t see everyone at once. The root פרשׁ, fey reysh shin, is interrelated with פרשׂ, fey resh sin, and פרס, fey resh samech, which have the connotation of spreading out, in addition to merely separating. These times of hybrid community call for reaching out and stretching — hevu f’rusim  הֱווּ פְרוּשׂים — making the effort to return to community if and when we are able to do so, trying to keep our communal policies such that the maximum number of people feel comfortable attending, and reaching out to those who have not returned in person so they don’t feel isolated.

Building and forming a holy community is hard work even in normal times, and all the more so during a pandemic. May we come together in person when possible, find holiness when apart, and as we’re spread out, may we work harder to reach out so that communal holiness can encompass the whole community.

(1) Rashi finishes the thought by saying that being holy means to separate oneself from sin. The Maor Vashemesh may be deliberately misreading Rashi by curtailing the quote mid-phrase, or he may view Rashi as emphasizing the negative, suggesting that one strive for holiness by avoiding certain people and activities instead of positively, through engaging with others.

Ken Richmond has been the cantor of Temple Israel of Natick since 2006, and received s’micha from Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School in 2021. He will become co-senior rabbi at Temple of Israel, in partnership with Rabbi Raysh Weiss, this summer.

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