Once you get to common sense and common decency, however, the Torah starts to give more explicit instructions, and for good reason. This week's Torah portion lays out a ton of laws that govern behavior... and throughout the course of human history we've broken pretty much every single one. Even the really big ones - commandments like "Don't steal stuff," "Don't kill anyone," and "Don't cheat on your spouse" - they make perfect sense to all of us, and we're not surprised to hear they are prohibited, yet people nevertheless break them all the time. Why is that? Why are we so good at taking care of ourselves, needing no help to stay alive and navigate life's individual challenges and pitfalls, yet we struggle terribly when it comes to creating a productive society, or even just following laws that are explicitly laid out for us?
We could rail about this for hours. We could point to societal ills, we could point fingers, and we could argue until we turned blue in the face (just don't forget to breath...). But let's ignore all that for a moment. Let's focus instead on one important lesson from our Torah portion, Kedoshim, which unfortunately is a lesson we might prefer to ignore. It's a concept that affects us all, that every, single person is guilty of, and that is excruciatingly difficult to change. In Leviticus, 19:17, the Torah tells us, "You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart." Now I'm not saying most of us hate our "kinsfolk," some of us might be very close with our family members. But the commandments we violate are not in public, not visible, not even expressed in words; they are the feelings in our hearts. Kedoshim governs not only the behaviors that others see, but also the subtle, hidden, private actions that are a big part of our lives: How much we give (or never give) to charity that no one sees, how often we say (or don't say) "thank you" to the guy who fills our water glass in restaurants, how often we change lanes on the highway without signaling, or how we react to the plight of people halfway around the earth. These little behaviors - on our own, in our homes, when no one is watching - they are the ones that can truly change the world.
Throughout our parasha, the Torah keeps repeating the phrase "I am the Lord," or "I, the Lord, am your God." For example, "Do such-and-such, I am the Lord," "Don't do this-and-that, I, the Lord, am your God." Why? Because God is with us every step of the way. God is not only the Lord of the Universe, God is also aware of each person's behavior. "I am your God," meaning that God is in relationship with all of us, with each of us, and at all times. Like recycling, every little bit makes a difference. Your choices may seem minuscule, but they aren't. Your actions affect the course of human history, and they can improve it if you set your mind to it.
I encourage each of you to read through this week's Torah portion here. Find just one behavior that you can work on, one challenge that you are willing to take on over the summer, leading into the High Holidays. I know it isn't easy. If it were easy, the Torah wouldn't need to tell us about them. But the Torah does tell us about them. These commandments are important, and in order to create a better future you too are important. Just take a peak. I'll never know if you looked, or if you decided to make any kind of change. In fact, no one else will ever know. Well, maybe Someone will know...
Photos in this blog post:
3. CC image courtesy of Ellipsis-Imagery on Flickr