What does it mean to be holy?
This week’s Torah portion commands us to be holy: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2). This is a recurring theme – we saw a similar message a few weeks ago in parshat Shmini: “For I am the Lord that brings you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:45).” This d’var Torah, in fact was originally prepared for that earlier discussion of holiness in Shmini – which happened to be my daughter Lizzy’s bat mitzvah…this was for her!
So how do we do it? How do we become holy?
The continuation to the verse from Leviticus 11 – be holy, for I am holy – says “This is the Torah of the beasts, and of the bird, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps upon the earth; To differentiate between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.” The implication is that by following the rules regarding what we eat we become holy.
In this week’s parsha, the commandment to be holy is followed by the rules about honoring your parents and keeping the Sabbath. Further proof that by following the rules we become holy.
But is it enough just to follow the rules?
Two of my daughters are vegetarians, including the bat mitzvah girl, Lizzy. So I asked her… “Since vegetarians don’t eat any of the forbidden foods, does that mean all vegetarians are holy?”
She correctly replied “no” – I pointed out that Hitler (yimach sh’mo) was vegetarian. Was he holy?
Clearly, to be holy requires more than just following a particular rule. It also requires a certain “mind set.” It requires kavannah, or intent. And it takes more than just following any one particular rule.
How do we demonstrate that we have the proper kavannah to turn eating into a holy act? By saying a bracha (blessing) before and after eating. In Kabbalistic terms, when we say the bracha before eating and then eat we are bringing out the holy spark inherent in the food, we are elevating it. We are turning a secular act – eating – into a sacred and holy act.
But if saying the blessing creates the air of holiness, what if you say a blessing before eating food that is not kosher, like a cheeseburger? Clearly that would not be a “holy act.” Holiness requires both right action and right intention.
The Midrash, Sifra affirms that we make ourselves holy: ““You shall be holy” – you shall set yourselves apart. “For I, the Lord your God, am holy” – meaning that if you make yourselves holy, I shall credit you as if you had sanctified Me, but if you do not make yourselves holy, I shall view you as if you have not sanctified Me. Or, perhaps it is to say none other than if you make Me holy, then I am sanctified, and if not, then I am not sanctified? The text says, “for I am holy.” In My sanctity I exist, whether or not others sanctify Me.”
Sifra says that we make ourselves holy, but God always exists in a state of holiness. Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik said on this subject that sanctity is not a supernatural, heavenly title that descends from on high and lands on some object or other. Things do not become holy of themselves. If things became holy automatically, Judaism would turn into a religion of magic, Heaven forbid. Sanctity is the creation of man.
So sanctity is the creation of man. A “holy man” is someone who has made himself holy. The term “holy man” often conjures up an image of someone very religious – maybe someone who looks charedi (ultra-Orthodox, typically dressed in a black suit and hat) and only eats badatz (a stricter level of kosher than “standard”).
But is that what it takes to be holy?
How about Jack Abramoff, remember him? He said he is an Orthodox Jew, follows all the ritual rules…but he’s sitting in jail at the moment, arrested for defrauding Indian tribes and bribing people in Congress. I don’t think we would call him holy either, no matter how picky he is about what he eats. And don’t even get me started on the financial scandals involving ostensibly religious people here in Israel.
The prophet Isaiah speaks out against being ritually pure and morally corrupt: “Behold, you fast for strife and debate.…Is such the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? to loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke (Isaiah 58 :4)?”
The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, has a connotation of being “set aside.” Why does God set the Jewish people apart?
The prophet Isaiah said “I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will keep you, and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6).” “L’or goyim,” often translated as “to be a light unto the nations.” To set a good example.
I suggest that being holy is a state of mind: if we want to be holy, if we want to follow God’s example, for She says “you shall be holy, for I the Lord God am holy” – we bring an attitude of sanctification to everything we do. Going to the grocery store becomes a holy act if we do it with the idea that it is part of the process of giving ourselves the energy we need to serve God.
The Malbim, a 19th century rabbi, takes our efforts to be holy to an even higher level. The Malbim says when a person elevates himself above material things and has the right spiritual attitude, and the divine soul is in him, then God becomes sanctified in the world…and this i
s what is meant by saying, “if you make yourselves holy, I shall credit you as if you had sanctified Me, …” Thus My sanctity, insofar as I am your G-d, depends on your sanctity.”
When we are holy, we actually increase God’s holiness in the world. Which makes perfect sense if you consider that we are part of God, and we are one of the ways in which God does God’s work in the world.
We make ourselves holy – and we increase God’s holiness in the world – by doing the right things, both ritually and morally, with the right intentions. Our holiness makes the world a better place.
And that, I believe, is WHY God wants us to be holy.