Holiness on the street, and a life spent helping

By Rabbi Joshua Taub

My grandfather of blessed memory operated a tailor shop on Hiram Street in the heart of the old business district in New Brunswick, N.J. Like many urban centers in the United States in the 1960s, New Brunswick was victim to suburban expansion, urban decay and increasing poverty. Hiram Street grew old and worn out, nevertheless my grandfather and a few of his peers continued to operate their businesses as they had for decades. The time I spent hanging out with my brother at our grandfather’s tailor shop was my early education about the realities of poverty and the lives of those who had a lot less than I.

One afternoon — I couldn’t have been more than nine or 10 years old — my brother and I were waiting in the car for our mother who had run into grandpa’s shop to retrieve something. We were enjoying a box of Stella D’oro assorted cookies when two African-American boys our age approached us. They saw the box of cookies. They asked me if they could have a few. I said, “Sure.” They pointed out which cookies they wanted (the ones with the purple or pink icing were always a popular choice) and took three or four. They both said, “Thanks a lot,” and went on their way. Forty years later, this story is still accessible on my internal hard drive.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

At the age of 10, I didn’t even know how to spell the word “Leviticus” much less know the verse from this week’s parasha: “when you reap the harvest of your land you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field… you shall leave [it] for the poor and the stranger.” I can certainly credit my parents with instilling in their children compassion and the importance of doing acts of righteousness and kindness. “Share with others” was my mother’s shorthand for teaching this.

Our parasha begins with the command to Moses to speak to “the entire community of the people of Israel” and the first words that he says are, “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” The long to-do list that follows instructs us on how to relate to and treat others, whether they are of our own people, our employees, the disenfranchised, or the complete stranger. At the heart of our parasha is the idea that Holiness is found in community.

I was once asked whether an individual living in isolation (in the wilderness of Wyoming for example) could live a proper Jewish life. I answered, “No.” I wasn’t thinking of minyanim or dietary issues; ritual observance was not the issue to me. I was thinking solely about human interaction, being a role model, and having a purpose. Being a “practicing Jew” in the wilderness is a noble life that has no purpose or meaning outside of one’s own survival (about which few, if any will care.) If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to witness it, it still makes a sound, but who really cares?

Holiness is found in community — creating it, nurturing it and sustaining it. Whether that community is a congregation, a neighborhood, a city, a state, or even a nation, Holiness is experienced through human interaction.

A major portion of my understanding of holiness was shaped and influenced during the time I spent on Hiram Street. On what street shall our children learn these things?

Rabbi Joshua Taub is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.