Our weekly portion begins with a dazzling, divine call to righteousness. God tells Moses to speak to the whole household of Israel and say: You shall be holy, kdoshim, for I the Lord your God am holy.
Holiness – in Hebrew, kedushah – is a slippery and most misunderstood concept. The Hebrew
suffers from translation. It is a word that in the fullness of what it conveys means ‘set apart,’ ‘singled out,’ ‘separated,’ ‘elevated,’ ‘precious,’ ‘extraordinary.’ It has very little to do with extra-worldly piety or super-religiosity.
So for instance, the Sabbath is a holy day – unlike the other six days of the week - set aside for higher, out of the ordinary activity. “It is first among our scared days,” says the prayer book, “and a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt.”
The word for marriage in Hebrew is kidushin. Of all the souls in creation, the bride and groom have singled out one another and set each other apart for a special relationship the likes of which they will have with none else.
In no way does kedushah convey an arrogant sense of ethical or moral superiority – as in ‘holier than thou.’ The opposite of kadosh is chol. So Pesach, for instance, is a seven-day festival. The first and seventh days are kadosh, the intermediate days are chol – as in chol hamoed - just ‘ordinary,’ ‘work-a-day.’ In English, the two concepts of kodesh and chol are rendered as ‘sacred and profane’ – profane as in bad, as in profanity. But there is no derogatory intention to the word chol in Hebrew. If my actions are not kadosh then they are simply chol.
In Judaism, it is through the performance of mitzvot that we enter into holiness, that we move from chol to kedushah, from the ordinary to the elevated. We say: Blessed are You, Lord our God, ahser kidshanu, who has made us kadosh through the performance of mitzvot. Leviticus 19 begins with a call to holiness and then enumerates some of the most important ways to get there. Check it out. Do not steal. Pursue justice and equity. Love your neighbor as yourself. See to the needs of the poor and the stranger. The list goes on. Each mitzvah is a portal into a different state of being – a doorway so ‘magically” transformative that we often fail to see that we have stepped through it and become something quite different.
So if holiness is something I am directed to be – then kedushah should be best thought of as a state of being. Something I can slip into or out of in the course of a day, a year or a lifetime. Morally, ethically, religiously speaking - I have my better days, my best days and my ordinary days. And when I am having one of my good days then I am mirroring in those mitzvah-moments a quality of elevated, un-ordinary holiness that only God can sustain perpetually.
In Judaism, the essential thing to know about holiness is how to recognize it when you are living it, being it.
And since the study of Torah is an asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav mitzvah, reading this blog you have, for the moment - actually crossed the boundary into holiness. Mazel tov.