Sometimes in our lives, we are lucky enough to find the golden mean, an easy balance between extremes – but more often, we find ourselves bouncing between two opposites. We over-indulge and then we diet. We spend too much and then we become misers. We hoard and then declutter.
This can happen with our identity as Jews; we can zig-zag between too much pride and too little. Sometimes, our love of Torah and Israel and our pride in Jewish accomplishments lead us to arrogance. We can find ourselves thinking that Jewish souls are different or superior to non-Jewish souls, and we forget that we all have one Creator. This can yield problematic attitudes and actions toward others, especially toward other minorities in America and Israel. When we become drunk on our own sense of uniqueness, we need a corrective.
As it happens, this week’s Haftarah begins with just such a corrective: “O Israelites,” says God, “You are just like the children of Ethiopia to me. True, I brought Israel up from Egypt – but I also brought the Philistines from Kaftor, and the Arameans from Kir.” In other words, God is saying, “Don’t think you are so special. I have redemptive relationships with other nations too.” If we find ourselves too sure of our own distinctiveness, we can look at the Haftarah.
The opposite also happens: we can become disillusioned by verses that trouble us, or disturbing actions of the Israeli government, and we can conclude, “There’s nothing really special about Judaism, or God, or Torah, or Israel.” In those moments, we can’t imagine why being Jewish is worthwhile, or we forget all that the Torah has to offer. Then we need the opposite corrective: a reminder of our potential.
That is how our Torah portion begins: “Kedoshim tihiyu, You shall be holy, because I the Lord am holy.” With a mixture of ethical and spiritual instructions, the Torah encourages us to imagine that we can put ourselves on the path towards holiness. It’s not automatic, or inborn – we aren’t told, “You are holy,” but that we ought to become holy. If we find ourselves thinking that our Torah has nothing special to offer, or that we should just strive to be a nation like any other, we can look at our parasha.
This match of Torah and Haftarah is no coincidence. The unknown rabbis who paired them knew how often we fall out of balance, and sought to help us find a middle between the two extremes. Which message do you need at this very moment? The answer is buried inside you. Either way, you can come to synagogue this Shabbat to find what you need.
Rabbi Jonathan Berger is associate head of school for Judaic studies and program at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike.