Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
The search for the holy is as elusive as ever. Some of us search within the sacred spaces of synagogues or churches, mosques or temples. We pray or meditate, chant or sing words ancient and modern to open the spiritual pathways from us to the divine.
Some believe that the only place they can truly find sparks of holiness is glowing deep within the human soul itself, reflected in the acts of goodness that human beings perform for one another. They look for mitzvah opportunities every day, acting as if motivated by the Talmudic suggestion that we find 100 blessings a day to recite. Their goal is to make life itself one long blessing treasure hunt.
Still others find the holy hidden within the warmth and love of a human embrace. Holiness is an extension of loving another, the spark of love is the spark of the divine, and God becomes a reflection that shines from the very eyes of their beloved.
Since this past week was Easter, I recalled once playing drums and percussion at the Self-Realization Fellowship for their annual Easter Service Sacred Concert that followed both the morning and afternoon Easter services. I recall listening as hundreds of devotees of the SRF chanted “OM,” and “Shanti,” and words of blessing and praise for God’s transcendent power to uplift and heal and make whole again the broken hearts and broken souls and broken spirits of our lives.
It was a beautiful experience for me, an island of calm and tranquility, an extended moment of loving one’s neighbor, and it truly felt like a moment of encountering the holy. I played with the orchestra and sacred choir as they sang music that ranged from classical composers to “Everyone Will Bless the Lord” by my friend and colleague Cantor Meir Finkelstein. The music lifted my soul and reminded me that God can be present in many different settings, and that the creativity of the human soul transcends religion, race, language and geographical boundaries.
These days each Tuesday night I play drums with an “old guy” jazz band in which I, at 69 years old am perhaps the youngest player in the band. Al, the trumpet player who also sings, is 94 and up unti recently was still playing and singing up a storm! It is my weekly spiritual/musical retreat where the jazz melodies and harmonies of a past era bring joy to my soul and allow me the satisfaction and fulfillment of returning to my jazz drumming roots. In addition I am now simply “the drummer in the band” for an almost monthly jazz service at Temple Isaiah and each month as I sit and play in their sanctuary, the cares and struggles of the everyday disappear and I experience a kind of sacred joy. Music has always been for me the most profound avenue for encountering the sacred and it is now a gift that I give to myself each month.
Playing music has always done that for me. It opens my heart to a deeper understanding of what the Torah means by the difference between “the holy and the secular,” (bayn hakodesh u’vayn ha-khol) – between the impure and the pure (vayn ha-tameh u’vayn ha-tahor).
“Holy” and “secular” (or “everyday”), “impure” and “pure” are designations that grow out of the real experiences of those of us who spend our lives engaged in one form or another of a personal blessing treasure hunt. On Passover we hunt to find the Afikomen so we might conclude the sacred meal. On Easter, children look forward to hunting for Easter Eggs, a symbol of life and renewal.
And I believe that every one of us spends our life in the pursuit of the ultimate fulfillment that Jews have called “KODESH” – Holy. So in this week’s Torah portion, Moses quotes God as saying, “I shall be made holy through those who are close to me, and I shall be honored by the mouths of all the people.” (Leviticus 10:3) I understand this teaching in reverse – whenever we experience something holy we come close to the experience of God and by acknowledging our experiences as something sacred, God’s presence is acknowledged (“honored”) as well.
Speak words of praise and prayer, sing songs that touch your soul, or play an instrument that will open your heart, and God’s smile is inevitable.
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., is Rabbi Emeritus of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, California. He is a nationally recognized expert in the field of moral education and is the recipient of numerous community awards, including the Micah Award for founding the largest full-service homeless shelter in Los Angeles. He is also a recipient of the Unsung Hero Award from the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. Steven has contributed to a wide variety of publications as an author and composer. He has written numerous books, including Raising Children in a Contemporary World (1992); Raising Ethical Children (Prima Publishing, 1994).