This Shabbat, we will be reading one of the most significant and central Torah readings of the year. It is Parshat Kedoshim. It begins with a commandment to be holy. The concept of holiness seems to have been co-opted by fundamentalists, and we see one who “acts holy” as if they are acting “holier than Thou.” But amongst most people, the idea of being “holy” feels foreign and seems to belong to those who live cloistered lives.
Yet holiness is foundational to Judaism. We see that holiness, as described in this section of Leviticus, is not something too far from us. Rather, not only is it attainable, it is necessary, for a respectful and functioning society. It provides the groundwork for treating other people fairly, for living with each other, and for respecting “the other.” It is about ethics, morality and justice. More than that, there is also a concept of holiness that is a fundamental feature of the Bible.
The beginning of the reading commands us to be holy, because God is holy. And there are two dimensions to this that I want to point out. The first is that the commandment is not to “you” in the singular, but rather the plural – all of us. That is to say, we are to create a holy community, a holy nation, and a holy people. The second dimension has to do with the notion that “God is holy.” How do we understand this? I’d like to point to two dimensions. The first is that God is holy because God is “other than” and God is unique. The second is that God is holy because of God’s attributes. God is merciful, gracious, patient, and filled with kindness. And if that defines holiness, then that is our aspiration – not only as individuals, but as a corporate body. Our challenge then is to create a community of kindness. We want people who are forgiving and gracious.We need people who are merciful and kind. That is our ideal.
It’s still a bit foreign to many because the world doesn’t necessarily reflect that value or those qualities. But that’s our challenge as individuals and partners in a community…and partners with God.
By the way, today is the twentieth day of the counting of the Omer. That means, that if you are a partner, you have put aside $20 to help with help issues for the children of Flint, Michigan. That is an act of holiness. Click here for more information and to donate.
You should be holy. Why? Because God is holy! This is a lofty idea; but remember, it is not too far from our reach.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l