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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
United States

(574) 234-8584

Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.


Shabbat Behar Behukotai - The Allusion of Eternity

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 20, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

New York Times had a story this week about the sale of Jean Michel Basquiat’s Untitled which in this layman’s eyes is a horrible, yet colorful, graffiti picture of a screaming skull, for 110 Million dollars.  Now to be fair I know that art aficionados might very well be able to explain why this is an important and valuable piece of contemporary art.  But for it to sell for $110 million dollars means someone has way too much money for their own good.  

But in this world we venerate ‘things’.   And especially when we can put a monetary value on something, that level of veneration grows exponentially.  Basquiat is now being compared to Picasso.  Said one collector of Basquiat art – “It’s a historical moment.  It does cement this artist once again.”  What he means is that because someone was willing to pay lots of money for this picture, the artist’s greatness follows.  Artistic talent is defined by the value of the artist as commodity. 

Judaism has always had an uneasy alliance with art.  The Torah’s command “Thou shalt not make any graven images” was considered by some to be a general prohibition not a specific rule against concretizing images of God.  And yet the Temple and Tabernacle had artistic components to them.  David Wolpe points out that “art is the means by which we are visibly reminded of the intangible; great art points beyond itself.  But great art is,  in its iconic power, uncomfortably close to idolatry.  The difference between an idol and a sculpture resides in the mind of the observer and boundaries of the mind are notoriously porous.”

We Jews uplift that which is intangible.  Art that leads us beyond the physical and material can enhance devotion.  But even more so, it is holiness in time and space that we are encouraged to honor.

You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God.  You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s.   

These verses conclude the first of our two Torah portions this morning, Parashat Behar.  But they also act as a coda to the final verses of the Book of Leviticus.   A coda is a concluding section of a text that serves as a summation of certain preceding themes.

Jacob Milgrom shows how these two verses, which include two positive mitzvot and three negative mitzvot line up closely with the three of the first 5 of the Ten Commandments and with the opening verses and closing verses of Leviticus 19, the Holiness code.  

The first two of the Ten Commandments are “You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall make no graven images”  which parallel  You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God.  The term here for idol – elilim – sounds very much like elokim aherim found in the 10 Commandments.  The second verse:  You shall keep My Sabbaths is of course the fourth commandment.  In Leviticus 19 it opens with a command to venerate Shabbat and a prohibition against idolatry and it closes with an almost exact parallel to the verses in Behar –  “You shall keep My sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary: I am the LORD”. 

This continuous refrain to warn against idolatry in the context of promoting Shabbat and the holiness of the sanctuary is of profound significance because it is a message the Torah very much wants to instill.  Rabbi Wolpe writes, “Ultimacy takes precedence and ultimacy is intangible.  Value that which you cannot see, and hold aloof from a world that is too much with you, a world of getting an spending, “I am the Lord your God”.  Idolatry is forbidden because ultimacy cannot be made into a commodity .  An idol is forbidden because you can see it, and that which you can see you will want to own or to control.”     

This is why idolatry is contrasted to Shabbat and the Divine Sanctuary in several locations in the Torah. Placing these mitzvot in opposition to one another expresses this central teaching of the Torah.

Shimshon Raphael Hirsh, the great 19th century German leader of Orthodoxy, explained that the reason a dead body is the source of impurity in Judaism is because looking at it one might believe that the body is all, and forget the truth that a person is in the image of God.  Regarding this verse he wrote, “Not by means of statue and pillar, not by means of likeness and memorial stones have we to keep ourselves conscious of God and His rule; the Sabbaths of God, the Sabbath of Creation and the Sabbath of the Land, the Sabbatical year and Jubilee, which regulate the whole of our private and public lives with the thought “God,” … these are our sign and covenant… from these do we draw the inspiration which makes us find ourselves at one with God.”  It is from the intangible, the ineffable that we link ourselves to God and raise ourselves up to a higher order of being. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel who used puns effectively  referred to the world as an allusion – not illusion.  What did he mean by that?  “The sense of the ineffable is not an esoteric faculty but an ability with which all (people) are endowed…just as (a person) is endowed with the ability to know certain aspects of reality, he is endowed with the ability to know that there is more than what he knows…What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”(Man is Not Alone, p. 20,22)

Experiences that we share in this world can allude to something beyond that we may not be able to express in concrete language or symbols.

As Rabbi Wolpe said, art or sculpture may allude to something beyond or they may be worshipped as an object to own and control.  But Shabbat is sacred time, there is nothing of Shabbat which we can control or own.  On Shabbat we simply exist.  One must prepare for Shabbat, must learn to refrain and to breathe, to limit oneself and one’s reach in order to find that sanctity.   Otherwise the hours of that day will slip away like sand in an hourglass.  But if we make Shabbat properly, it alludes to something greater, and holier, beyond; this is the meaning of the rabbinic teaching that Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, a day when we receive, not take; a day spent in harmony with the world not attempting to be in control of it.

Likewise is the space within the sanctuary – mikdashi.   The desert sanctuary had places within for cultic rituals but what made it sacred was that God had determined this space be set aside from all others.  Most of Parashat Behar concerns land issues.  The reference to a portion of that land as a Mikdash, a holy space, reminds us that while the whole earth is the Lord’s, parts of this world are infused with greater concentrations of the Transcendent.  What creates that concentration of transcendence is the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of engaging the Divine.

As we close the book of Leviticus a book which has focused so much on the sensual – sacrifices, incense, skin disorders, physical abnormalities, dietary rules – the author brings us back to the essential lesson of Judaism which is that the most real is that which is ineffable and that which we can see and feel and sense is significant when it alludes to the transcendent source of all being.

Or in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “The first and last lesson of religion:  the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are unseen are eternal.”

May we all be blessed with the gift of recognizing that which is truly eternal.