D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia Plumb (Kedoshim)

Parashat Kedoshim is one of my favorite parshiot.  Its first verse led to major change in my life:  קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.   This verse is the root of Mussar, a genre of Jewish literature from the 11th century that tries to answer the question of how to fulfill the commandment from the verse. Studying and following Mussar has helped me change the way I behave toward others and toward myself.  I am a better parent, child, partner and rabbi because of what I have learned from Mussar.

So, what is Mussar?  It is a Jewish method to help us become holier people.   What does it mean to be holy and how do we achieve it? Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Spanish theologian, the original Mussar thinker, said that holiness starts in our souls.   How do we build holy souls, you ask? Mussar says that we work on character traits to help us feel and behave better. Let’s take an example from the Torah: ‘You shall look after the poor and needy’.  According to Mussar, giving to the poor is part of the trait of hesed, loving kindness. We all have the ability to show loving kindness, but sometimes we give it more than at other times. According to Mussar, in order to be holy, we should show hesed as often as we can to others, and to ourselves.  Hesed toward ourselves is as important as doing acts of kindness for others. Mussar says that if we feel badly about ourselves, and berate ourselves again and again, that is not holiness. At the same time, if we hide our sins from ourselves and deny our faults, then we are not holy either. Holiness is finding a balance between our strengths and our weaknesses. We also need to find a balance with hesed. Of course, it is good to give tzedakah but the Talmud tells us that we shouldn’t give so much money away that we can’t pay the dentist bill. In other words, we can’t give so much away that we go broke ourselves.

Holiness comes from finding the right balance between giving and receiving, between looking after others and looking after ourselves.  This Shabbat, I hope you find holiness, peace and joy.

Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila

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