The poet, Elizabeth Alexander writes:
"Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overheard on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry my dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?"
(Elizabeth Alexander, “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” from American Sublime (Graywolf Press: 2005)
What is the purpose of words? In a tradition that imagines a world realized through word and reveres scribed letters on a scroll as the sacred center of Judaism, we have a heightened need to understand the role of words. To paraphrase the linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, words serve to create both connection and distinction in a lived-experience that would otherwise be chaos (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology I, [Oxford: Blackwell 1982], p. 138, 291). As words string together, these two functions echo forward, creating worlds of both belonging and distinction.
In the Book of Leviticus, we encounter the emanation of these dual purposes embodied in sacred sacrifice. The Hebrew word for “holy” (kadosh) is often translated as “distinct, separate, or different,” even as the word for “sacrifice” (korban) more literally means “that which makes close or draws near.” The priestly purpose is to remain separate from the people while linking them to God: the sacrifices themselves mean to draw humanity and divinity close, while the definition of the sacrificial animal and the process of its offering is one of separation and distinction. We are left with a difficult duality, both in the nature of this flesh-focused practice and the priestly power paradigm: in word and in world, what is the primary purpose?
In Sh’mini, a parashah containing the shocking and heart-wrenching deaths of Aaron’s two sons, much of the sacrificial detail is left separate and forgotten against the backdrop of tragedy. But Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev instead turns precisely to these very verses: “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the purgation offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being” (Lev. 9:22). Levi Yitzhak uses a close reading of words to reflect upon the ideal vision of power and purpose. He reflects:
"There is a righteous person who does not draw so close to engaging with each person, to bring others closer to their Creator, who only strives to strengthen himself. The divine presence does not dwell with this righteous person so much, since he lacks the linkage of the community. This is how we should understand the verses at the end of Leviticus 9. “Aaron lifted his hands” (Lev. 9:22), that is, at first he lifted himself to be separated off and set apart from the people, to be by himself and not engage with them. “Toward all the people”; up to this point he had been “with the people,” engaging with them, yet he now lifted himself away from the community. That is why “he stepped down from offering the sin offering”: he came down from his personal experience of the divine." (Kedushat Levi on Lev. 9; with gratitude to Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater for interpretation help in his A Partner in Holiness, vol. II [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2014], pp. 20-21)
In other words, one path of righteousness is to focus on distinction and separateness. By removing oneself from the people, in keeping away signs of the mundane, holiness may be held in isolation. In the verbs of Aaron’s actions, we see him taking such a path; holding ecclesiastical power, apart and unengaged from the collective. But this, offers Levi Yitzhak, is a lower form of holiness, one in which divinity is not fully present. In contrast, he says:
"The divine presence essentially comes to dwell on a person when one leads the people and engages with each and every one, seeking to create connection with the blessed Creator, each and every one according to his or her level. Then, through the merit of the entire community reaching together towards teshuvah (turning), the Holy One causes the divine presence to dwell with us … [this higher form of holiness is suggested by the subsequent verse] “Moses and Aaron went inside the Tent of Meeting and came out” (Lev. 9:23). That is, they came out of the place they had been before, separated and apart from the people, only now to engage with them … The merit of the community brought about the indwelling of divinity even more than when they had been separated off and distinguished from the community." (ibid.)
Our highest form of holiness is realized when an individual links herself (or himself) to a collective. In moving from isolation to integration, from distinction to connection, God comes to dwell. In world, in word, the primary purpose and highest holiness is that of connectedness.
Our Sages believed that Torah went even beyond the written words of our scroll. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was hailed for a wisdom that drew not only from biblical and Rabbinic text, but also from the calendar, the conversations of both angels and demons, the dialogue of palm trees, the parables of laundry workers, the stories of foxes, and all matters both great and small. (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 28a). In stepping beyond the bounds of the beit midrash, beyond the words of Rabbinic distinction, our Sages found wisdom in witnessing the voices of flora and fauna, laborers, and fables. Indeed, wisdom was the weaving of words from all sources, believing and discovering that truly Torah is everywhere. In word, in world, the highest form of learning is that of connection.
As the Israeli writer, Amos Oz, reflected:
“No man is an island, wrote the great Donne. The novelist among us adds: true, no man is an island, but we are all peninsulas. Partially on our own, surrounded by the dark waters, and partially linked to a continent, to other peninsulas, to the plural noun.… This truth is deeper than Jewish. It is universal. We are all given our identities by other persons and by other things. We are named by everything we ever knew and by everything we ever did.” (Amos Oz, Jews and Words [New Haven: Yale University Press: 2012], pp. 187-189).
In our positions of power, in our daily dealings, in our practices and rituals, may we reach towards a higher holiness, one in which our primary purpose sees word and world as opportunity for connection. For it is there God chooses to dwell.
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.