Parshat Kedoshim 5779: How to Write a Drash

Have you ever wondered what goes into writing a Dvar Torah? This is a rare window into the life of an (almost) rabbi, a window into the artistic process. Sometimes it looks like you’d imagine: taking my Tanakh and a commentary from the shelf, opening it up, reading it and talking to myself while sipping a steaming cup of coffee. Or learning with Rabbi Victor or a hevruta and having a flash of inspiration, jotting it down in a well-worn (leather) notebook. And, sometimes it looks a little different. Like frantically googling “kedoshim dvar torah” and coming across a Bat Mitzvah girl’s drash from 2012, in which she writes, “Holiness can be in all of our lives, if we know how to open up to it...I personally open myself up to higher experiences whenever I have profound feelings, like being sad about important things, or being truly content.” I know, right? Very deep. Then the artistic process takes a turn. The darshan deletes it all and meanders down streets, rides buses and trains, and eventually stumbles upon something beautiful. Like a newborn baby in the NICU on the Upper East Side of New York.

After two and a half days of wrestling, this beautiful baby was born to my two friends this past Sunday. Because of a mild infection, he’s under supervision in the NICU, and he’s just perfect. A full head of black hair, expressive eyebrows, and beautiful grey-blue eyes. From his little NICU box and all swaddled up, this little one scanned the room with his eyes. Searching for human connection, which he knows so instinctively is absolutely vital for existence.

In this week’s parsha, Kedoshim, G!d speaks to Moshe, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

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

Why does G!d emphasize that Moshe speak to the whole community, instead of each person individually? Additionally, why is the commandment to be holy, קְדֹשִׁ֣ים, written in the plural? The Netivot Shalom (which I did learn with Rabbi Victor, incidentally) explains that this verse hints to the idea that we cannot truly be holy without unity. We need one another in order to fulfill the mitzvah of קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ. It’s no mistake that the mitzvot that follow this opening line are bein adam l’chavero, instructions on how to be good to one another. In order to be holy, it needs to be in the plural. Our connection to one another is vital.

The baby and I locked eyes, and one of his mom’s and I sang a favorite Shabbos melody as I caressed his soft head. He is so vulnerable, and so good. He does not need to open Sefer Netivot Shalom to understand the interconnectedness of all human beings.

Sometimes us adults, however, need a reminder.

Two weeks ago, on the last night of Pesach, there was an attack on Am Yisrael. As I watched the video of the Rabbi of Chabad of Poway speak after the attack, wearing a hospital gown and his hands bandaged up, two things struck me. The first was that, just like him, my name will soon be Rabbi Goldstein.  In that way we are connected. The second was the horrifying and awe-inspiring image of him standing on the steps outside his shul, people gathered around him after the attack. With his hands bleeding profusely, wrapped in tallesim, he gave a drash. “Am Yisrael Chai! Nothing is going to take us down...we are going to stand tall, we are going to stand proud of who we are, our heritage. We are going to get through this.” The paramedics tried to stop him, but he needed to finish his drash, he needed to leave his people with the feeling of connectedness amidst disaster.

Rabbi Goldstein’s words acted as a wake up call for me, the other (almost) Rabbi Goldstein. It made me realize how, before this attack, I would not have considered the Chabad of Poway a part of my immediate Jewish family. With our difference in politics, practice, and priorities, I didn’t see us as part of the same Jewish body, so to speak. But when I saw Rabbi Goldstein’s hands wrapped, and heard his impassioned words “Am Yisrael Chai,” tears welled up in my eyes. I realized that of course, we are part of the same Jewish body, a part of Am Yisrael. And, we need one another.

Sometimes drashot don’t go exactly as the darshan or darshanit planned. Sometimes the darshan looks into the Torah and tries to find the world, and sometimes, perhaps much more often she looks at the world and sees the Torah reflected in a newborn’s searching eyes, or a Rabbis bleeding hands.

May we be blessed to remember our interconnectedness not only in our most vulnerable times, but daily. In this way may we fulfill the commandment קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ, and be holy together.

Shabbat Shalom.