The point of being Jewish is to have a relationship with God. Yet, a relationship implies a certain give and take, and there is precious little in the Torah that talks about what we have that God could possibly need. What can we give to God? That doesn't mean we don't have a whole section on sacrifice in this week's portion, Emor, and throughout the Book of Leviticus. But, it does mean that there really isn't any indication that our actions here on earth affect God in some way that is bounded by the relationship.
And then, for one precious moment, our portion steps aside from the questions of sacrificial rite and priestly purity to ponder this question: how do we make God holy? In Leviticus 22:32 we read: "You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people-I Adonai who sanctify you."
Translation issues become important here. The text says v'nikdashti, "and I will be made holy" amidst the Children of Israel. Or, in other words, "You will make Me holy just as I, Adonai, have made you holy."
Here, for a moment, there is a relationship. We do something for God in response to what God has done for us. The only problem with this magic moment of relationship is that it makes no sense. How can we profane God's Name or make God Holy? How can any action of ours, however base, debase God in any way? And more to the point, how can our human acts help, in any way, to make the Holy One, holy?
Perhaps the most intriguing response of all the classical commentaries can be found in P'sikta D'Rav Kahana, one of the oldest collections of midrash and commentaries on the Torah. The P'sikta teaches:
"You are My witnesses, says the Lord . . . that I am the One; before Me there was no God formed, neither shall there be any after Me" (Isaiah 43:10). Thus said Shimon bar Yohai: "If you are my witnesses then I am the One, the first One, neither shall there be any after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God." (P'sikta D'Rav Kahana, 12)
Let me emphasize that these words are taken not from some radical, post-holocaust, interpretation of the Torah, but from one of the oldest sources we know (6 c.e.).
If you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.
In the context of the Torah, our lives, our very existence as a people, are dependent on the actions of God. And here for this one shining moment, the Torah teaches us that God's Holiness, God's Presence in the world, is dependent upon us.
So, how exactly do we do that? How can we stand as witnesses that the Holy One is the One? One answer can be found in the Sh'ma, the central prayer of our synagogue service, a place where the Hebrew words for "witness" and "one" reside as one. We stand as witnesses of God's oneness to the world when we say the words "Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The relationship between our statement of God's Oneness in the morning and evening, recitation of the Sh'ma, and our role as God's witness to the world is made explicit by the very lettering of these words as they appear in the Torah. There is something remarkable about the way the words of the Sh'ma are written in a Torah scroll. The last letter of the first word and the last letter of the last word are written larger than any of the others. The large ayin at the end of the word Sh'ma and the large dalet at the end of the word echad together make the word eid which means "witness." As we read in Isaiah 43:10,"You are My witness" (see Baal HaTurim at Deuteronomy 6:4).
We bear witness to God's oneness through our synagogue services, which are a reflection of the animal sacrifices that we once offered in ancient times. I like that image and it is a clever midrash that comes to support it, but there is still a piece missing, because it still doesn't make any sense. Saying the Sh'ma every day might remind us of God's oneness, of God's holiness, but how can our prayers actually make God holy?
A version of a beautiful prayer by Ruth F. Brin can be found in Mishkan T'filah, the newest Reform prayer book. It expresses this challenge directly and within it there lies an answer for us as well.
I can begin with a prayer of gratitude
for all that is holy in my life.
God needs no words, no English or Hebrew,
no semantics and no services.
But I need them.
Through prayer, I can sense my inner strength
my inner purpose,
my inner joy, my capacity to love.
As I reach upward in prayer,
I sense these qualities in my Creator.
To love God is to love each other,
to work to make our lives better.
To love God is to love the world God created
and to work to perfect it.
To love God is to love dreams of peace and joy
that illumine all of us,
and to bring that vision to life.
(adapted from "Illuminations," Ruth F. Brin, in Harvest: Collected Poems & Prayers [New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1986] p. 136)
Having a relationship with God is a feathery thing. One never really knows what God is thinking, when God is present, how we can truly bear witness to God's will in the world. And yet, through prayer we are reminded of all that is Holy in our world and in ourselves, and through this we form a bridge of connection. We become partners with God in the perfection of this world. It is then that we can truly make God holy. By repairing the brokenness in ourselves, by repairing the brokenness of our world, we repair the brokenness that has resided within God since the first moment of creation and in this way we can indeed make the Holy One, whole once again.
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish thought for two decades at Bellarmine University.