F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
The Torah suggests a slightly different, though related, test.
Intelligence is important for this test, but it is not the only aspect. The Torah is decidedly egalitarian, designed to speak to all of us. This test is for all of us: the brainy or less so, rich or poor, all genders and sexualities, young or old, lucky or unlucky, all political persuasions…
The Torah’s test is also about our ability to function. But the Torah understands that your ability to function has many factors: Yes, your choices and behaviors as an individual do matter (greatly!). Those choices and behaviors, though, are strongly influenced by your surroundings, the conditions of your life, and most especially by your community. The Torah’s test is therefore a test both for you as an individual and for the community, for the entire Jewish People, and ultimately for all of humanity. You don’t take this test alone – that should help your confidence and make you feel better! – but your “score” is no less important for that. In fact, you might feel that your responsibility is greater since your performance on this test impacts everyone else!
The Torah’s test also requires coping with two opposing conditions. These conditions are more comprehensive and far more challenging than the potential for analytical paralysis suggested by Fitzgerald’s test of coping with mere opposing ideas.
The conditions we have to cope with are being both a physical creature and a spiritual being. As Sting put it: “We are spirits in a material world.” The test is, as the Torah says in this week’s double Torah portion Acharai Mot-Kedoshim, to integrate these two conditions into one state of being:
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
[God tells Moses] “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”
The Torah then lists all sorts of rules to live by, guidelines for transforming physical needs and mundane moments and activities into opportunities for spiritual sanctification, holy time and transformative events. The test is to live successfully caring both for our physical selves and for our spiritual selves. The idea of “you shall be holy for I, God, am holy” is that, since we are created in God’s Image, we are tasked with helping God to manifest God’s presence in this world, to help God infuse holiness into the profane, the spiritual within the physical, the eternal within the momentary.
Our test is little by little, individually and collectively as a community, a people, and a species, to make the world hospitable to good, to caring, to love, to a sustainable existence, to peace…to God.
On this Shabbat, experiment with ways [no way is too small!] to raise your own personal spiritual consciousness. What can you do to bring a little holiness into the world, to sanctify a moment or two in the day, to add a touch of caring and kindness and love to the world?
Rabbi Michael Schwartz