A rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?” The students understood that there are certain prayers that are recited during the day and others at night so they proceeded to offer a variety of answers.
“The night has ended and the day has begun when I can distinguish between my field and my neighbor’s,” said one.
“When I can tell the difference between the different animals in the field, whether it be a cow or a horse,” said another.
And another replied, “When I can tell the difference between the colors on a flower.”
With each response, the pain and frustration on the rabbi’s face grew more visible until he finally declared, “No! You are all wrong! All you do is divide – one field from another, one animal from another, one color from another. Your focus is on separation, division, differentiation, but that is not what Torah is for!”
One brave student gathered the courage to ask, “Rabbi, how else can we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”
The rabbi took a deep breath and calmly replied, “When you look at the people around you and you see that they are your brothers and sisters, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
So how can we bring about the start of a new day? Our tradition teaches that it is through holiness that we accomplish the task. This week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, includes the most comprehensive articulation of what it means for a person and a community to be ‘holy’. But holiness is not something reserved for the elite, the learned, the pious. Every individual has the opportunity, if not the obligation, to strive for holiness. Plain and simple, it is built around our treatment of others. Only three times in the entire Torah are we commanded to ‘love’ another. The most famous is found in Deuteronomy, embedded in the V’ahavta prayer - “you shall love God with all your heart, with all your might...” But the other two commandments ‘to love’ are found right here in Kedoshim – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and “you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). What an appropriate reminder of what matters right now! We are emerging from our pandemic bubbles. We have the benefit of eating at restaurants again, but when we drive down the street, we are also exposed to the depressing underbelly of a city struggling with homelessness, poverty, and other forms of disparity. We can once again experience the joy of hugging our friends, but we may also struggle with our ‘social skills muscles’ in ways we haven’t had to in over a year.
So, how do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun? When we open our hearts and minds, and love as if our world depends on it. The opportunities for each of us to bring more light and holiness into our world are endless. After George Floyd’s murder, our community reached out to our black brothers and sisters. With the recent wave of anti-Asian hate speech, we reminded members of our own synagogue community and our Koreatown neighbors that we are here for them. When the pandemic struck, The Karsh Center, with its numerous WBT volunteers, went into action, improving the lives of thousands in Los Angeles. How are you going to bring more holiness to our world? Will it be through acts of generosity of time and talent? Will it be through ethical business practices? Will it be through activism and passionate pleas for change? Will it be through care and comfort of the downtrodden and disheartened? How are YOU going to help us ensure that a new day has begun, in our city, in our country, in our world?
Below, I am listing a few passages from our Torah portion (Kedoshim), all of which invite us to bring more holiness into the world. Spend a few minutes this Shabbat thinking about which ones resonate with you and how you can live them out.