Whole Before Your God

Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on August 21, 2012
Haftarah Reading

In his magisterial presentation of Judaism, The Guide of the Perplexed, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (known as Maimonides to the Western world) explains that the purpose of the Torah is twofold: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body. Rambam points out that the welfare of the soul is more noble and greater, but that it comes only after the welfare of the body. And he defines the welfare of the body both in terms of the individual (maintaining health), but also in terms of the body politic (fashioning a society of justice and compassion). Neither half alone can suffice. The purpose of the Torah is to elevate both realms. Unless our relations to each other are guided by the highest values of Torah, we cannot proceed to perfect our souls. It takes both halves to produce a whole.

Today’s Torah portion speaks to this wholeness when it instructs us "“You must be tamim with the Holy One your God.” The new JPS Tanakh translates tamim as wholehearted, and in its commentary to Deuteronomy explains that the term means to be “undivided in your loyalty to God.” In that sense, temimut implies a high degree of devotion to God alone. There is no room for competing desires or distracting temptations. What God wants is the heart, all of it.

The great medieval commentator, Rashi, shifts the focus. He understands tamimas a degree of trust, rather than just loyalty. “Look ahead to God and don’t seek after the future. Rather, whatever will come to you accept with wholeheartedness. Then you will be with God and will be of God’s portion."”

For Rashi, wholeheartedness is a matter of accepting with equanimity both the good and the bad. Accepting that being tamim implies something exclusive for God, Rashi nonetheless shifts the focus. He argues that it is human nature to seek to force the future to conform to our desires, but that effort is both futile and desperate. Instead, he urges us to embrace whatever the future will bring. Rashi recognizes the future as the portal to an encounter with the Eternal, if we would only open our arms to the embrace.

I'd like to extend that embrace a bit beyond Rashi’s. Rashi wisely counsels us away from a destructive desire to manipulate time, to squander our gifts to assert control in areas we cannot control. By counseling us to accept what the future offers, Rashi opens us to life’s possibilities as far transcending our own plans, ambitions, or scripts.

What is true of time is true of people too. Invisible to most of us, buried deep within our hearts, is a system for rating people – those who matter, those who don’t; those who are worth attention, those who aren’t. Perhaps being wholehearted, tamim, involves a different way of looking at our fellow human beings, and ourselves, as well.

Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan of Kovno notes that in one other text, the Hebrew Bible uses the same term, temimah/perfect: In the Book of Psalms, we read that, “The Torah of the Lord is temimah/perfect.” Rabbi Elhanan points out that what makes a Torah scroll ritually temimah/perfect is that it isn’t missing a single letter. If the scroll omits even as little as one single Hebrew letter, the entire Torah is pasul, ritually unfit. So too, if a single Jew is excluded from the community, then the entire community is – as it were – pasul.

Maybe that’s why we remind ourselves at the beginning of the Kol Nidrei services that we aren’t a congregation if we don’t include the sinners in our midst. If someone is left out, we are not whole, not tamim. We can only attend to our own repentance after we’ve truly welcomed all of the members of the community.

This year, with our people besieged and assaulted, with anti-Semites no longer seeming to need to hide their poisonous hatred, can’t we  - at least – show love to the entire Jewish people? Can’t we take the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, love of our fellow Jews, as seriously as we take the other mandates of Jewish values and Torah tradition?

Perhaps what the Torah is telling you is that if you aspire to be “with the Lord your God,” you had better make room for the Jew next to you – the one who’s (politics/lifestyle/observance/faith/disability/orientation/you name it) makes you squirm a bit.

To be holy, we must be whole.

Welcome home.

Shabbat Shalom,