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What Does It Mean to Be Holy?

  • What Does It Mean to Be Holy?

    Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30
D'var Torah By: 

In the democratic society of Israel, we with struggle the concept of what it means to be am chofshi b’artzeinu, “a free people in our land.” We ask, “What does the responsibility of freedom require from us?” Every year, it seems the answers are less obvious and the search to find them becomes more demanding.

Maybe our parashah can help by guiding us to approach freedom from the perspective of holiness. This week, we read two parashiyot, Acharei Mot and K’doshim. K’doshim starts with God’s call: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This difficult demand is directed to “the whole Israelite community” (19:2). It is addressed not only to the priests, elders, and respected ones, but also to all men, women, and children; young and old; and leaders as well as average people.

What does the commandment “to be holy” mean? How can you demand that a person or a nation be holy? Interpreters in all generations have tried to answer this question. But in Parashat K’doshim, we can find simple, direct answers in a long list that details what “You shall be holy” means. The commandments here have deep meanings, and the most prominent ones are those that include both man-to-man and person-to-Maker directives. Consider these examples: “You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Eternal am your God” (19:3); “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Eternal” (19:11‒12).

Parashat K’doshim teaches us that we cannot separate decent relations between humans from the commandments between a person and his (or her) Maker. Harming or insulting a person is the same as harming or insulting the image of God in that person; therefore, it is harming or insulting to God. Embezzling public money is not different from embezzling that which is holy to God. The reason to “be holy” is because “I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” The holiness of God requires that we lead a holy life.

The commandments that explain the requirement to be holy repeat some of the directives of the Ten Commandments, for example, to honor parents (19:3), keep Shabbat (19:3), and abstain from idol worship (19:4). Some have considered this repetition a reflection of problems in the editing of the Torah, but in my opinion there is deep meaning in it. The Ten Commandments are comprised of “do’s and don’ts,” but Parashat K’doshim tells us why we should keep the commandments and what we should look toward when we keep a mitzvah: we have to keep it so our lives will be holier. This is the purpose we should aim toward when we keep the mitzvot.

Israel’s Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut, which we celebrated this week, brings to mind several questions: Is Israel is a nation like any other or is there something that makes Israel different? Is the State comprised of the “Chosen People,” and if so, what does that mean? Our parashah answers those who claim that Jews are unique and that something in our genes makes us different, better than other people. In Leviticus 19:2, God says that there is nothing inherently holy about us: rather, God instructs us to “be holy.” And how can we be holy? We need to raise ourselves up through our deeds, by our way of living: only then can we be holy and a free people in our country.

In our haftarah portion this week, the prophet Amos says something similar: “Are you not to me, O people of Israel, like the Cushites? Did I not bring you up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Crete, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). These words that we will read this Shabbat teach us not to be haughty; we are only one of the pieces in God’s world. God tells the people of Israel that we are not different from other peoples that God brought up to new places, just as He brought us up from Egypt. Instead, we are all parts in His enormous patchwork. Nevertheless, we learn there is a special bond between God and the people of Israel, and in the future: “On that day will I raise up David’s fallen shelter, I will rebuild the breaches in its walls and raise up its ruins and build it up as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11).

Another way to look at the “chosenness” issue is in a historical context: when the people were in trouble, chased and defenseless, they were comforted by thoughts of being unique and chosen by God. In his essay “Half Consolation,”1 Achad Ha’am explains that when our ancestors simply believed that they were the Chosen People, they did not focus on the abuse they experienced from others because they knew their value. This belief helped them keep their pride when they were vulnerable and helpless.

Today, when Jews can choose to live freely in the modern State of Israel, and many may choose to visit it, there is danger that the Chosen People concept may be misused to support arrogance, complacency, and even racism. We need to remember the instruction, “You shall be holy to me, for I the Eternal am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). This means that God will “set you apart” only if you become holy through your deeds—only then will you be unique.

We shall finish with these hopeful words of the haftarah (Amos 9:13–15): may they come to pass soon for all who dwell in the State of Israel:

The time is coming—says the Eternal One—
when the one who plows the field
will overtake the one who reaps it,
and the treader of grapes [will overtake] the one who sows seeds,
when the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall overflow.
I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel:
They shall rebuild the desolate cities, and dwell [in them];
they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine;
make gardens, and eat their fruit.
I will plant them on their soil,
never again to be uprooted from the soil that I have given them
—says the Eternal One your God.

  1. See http://www.benyehuda.org/ginzburg/Gnz009.html

Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck.

Simple in Definition; Complex in Action
Davar Acher By: 
Matthew D. Gewirtz

“Holy” is a word we use often but are never quite sure how to define. When I ask, many define “holy” by using other synonyms like “consecrate,” “sacred,” “sanctify,” and “hallowed.” Even with these synonyms, we are not quite sure what we mean. The concept is complex, but the definition is actually quite simple.

To be “holy” is only to be “different” or “separate.” Think of what we call holy: Shabbat is holy; separate or different from the rest of the week because it is a day of rest. Yom Kippur is separate from every other day of the year as we spend an entire day, in synagogue, looking inward, accounting for our actions and how we might better make the mark in the coming year. When we participate in any life-cycle event, we know that nothing in our daily lives feels like the separate (holy) nature of a b’rit milah, a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, a conversion, and even a funeral. All of these are called holy because they feel absolutely different from anything else we do in life.

As Professor Marx points out above, all of these holy acts are only such because they resemble what is most holy, and thus most different from us (human beings), and that is of course, God. Indeed, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal you God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We humans resemble God, the most beautiful and distinct part of ourselves, when we act differently from the way we do ordinarily. That does not mean that there is something inherently wrong about how we act most of the time. It merely means that when we reach a bit higher in our actions, when we stop to do right, when we are intentional in acknowledging the depth of beauty around us, we connect to and maybe even act like the God that resides within every one of us.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of our existence is this: the potential for holiness within us, which is so distinct from our other aspects, is the exact piece that binds us with one another. Moreover, when we connect to that part of ourselves we stop being finite beings and, instead, connect to the infinite nature of the world. When we connect to the infinite and binding energy we might call God, we are then living the definition of what it means to be kadosh ...what it means to be holy.

Matthew D. Gewirtz is the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey.

Reference Materials: 

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1–18:30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858–888; Revised Edition, pp. 769–794; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 679–700

When do we read Acharei Mot?

2017, May 6 10 Iyyar, 5777
2018, April 28 13 Iyyar, 5778
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