“God said to Moses: speak to the whole of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai, am holy.”
As a child, I used to wonder what it means to be “holy.” It sounded like such a big, unearthly word. I imagined that a “holy person” was a man adorned in a long white gown with a giant white kippah covering most of his head. I also imagined he would always walk around with arms covered with long, flowing sleeves, his two palms pressed together in the prayer gesture, while blessing everyone with holy words of wisdom. I now understand that my childhood image basically reflected the Pope; an image I saw on our old black and white TV.
Now, as an adult, that childhood image is no more. I think I may have a little better understanding of the Hebrew word “kadosh” itself, and the message delivered to each of us in this excerpt from Parshat Kedoshim (though as often happens, this idea may also change as I grow older). To me, the word kadosh reflects the essence of relationships: with one’s self and with other humans. It ultimately leads to a deeper spiritual connection with “The One.” Let me explain.
The beginning of Parshat Kedoshim is enigmatic. The previous chapter ends with the words “I am Adonai your God.” Parshat Kedoshim then starts with a new idea, a new verse that also ends with, “I am Adonai your God.” With no further elaboration about what it means to be holy to God, we are told, “God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say unto them: You shall be holy, for I, God your God, am holy.”
But what is holy? If God wants us to be holy because God is holy, then what is the point of comparison? What’s even more puzzling are the next three of the Ten Commandments which seemingly appear out of nowhere. It feels as if they were handpicked and planted in the center of this discussion, not even in the order in which the Ten Commandments were originally given to us!
As the Portuguese scholar Rabbi Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel [1437-1508] asked: “Why did God think it necessary for Moses to speak to the whole of the Israelite Community and repeat the Ten Commandments to them? And why are they not given in the order they were given in Exodus 20?”
The three commandments are:
1. Revere your mother and father.
2. Keep my Sabbath.
3. Do not worship false gods.
On the surface, this sudden insertion is not connected to any of the verses that come before or after it.
The more I read and meditated on the verses, it dawned on me that this is a highly psychological instruction, a synopsis of how to transition from childish behavior and an infantile outlook on life to a mature relationship. Only after we achieve these goals can we be free to move up on the ladder of spiritual existence. Bringing the examples into a present context:
1. Honor your parents: When we stop blaming our parents for all the “wrongs” that were done to us, the moment we take responsibility for our own actions, as we learn to accept our parents’ human attributes, to see and love them for who they are — that’s the moment we have matured and now are able to develop a healthy relationship with ourselves. This eventually opens our hearts to The One.
2. Keep the Sabbath: The moment we give ourselves permission to let go of the everyday meshugas — for example, the moment we acknowledge that enjoying and appreciating nature brings us closer to ourselves and nature — we can then let go of the mundane, the “to-do” lists, and let God’s peace surround us. Our way of keeping Shabbat, then, becomes “holy,” nearer to God.
3. Refrain from worshiping idols. No other human should be worshipped. At the age of 45, for example, looking at yourself in the mirror and comparing yourself to a 15-year-old model could make you do horrific things to your own body, sometimes even risk losing your life. When we do things like tucking this, injecting that, cutting/inducing/eliminating this that or the other, in order to look like her/him, we are subjecting ourselves, our bodies — God’s magnificent creation — to destruction. That is one of many examples of “idol worship” which distances us from our God.
Feeling “holy to God” is subjective and relative. One person’s idea of holiness will differ from someone else; there’s no “right” here, nor “wrong.” There are only consequences to our actions. Feeling holy to God is an individual experience. The three commandments above are examples, a road map that summarizes one way to reach a mature connection with God.
On this Shabbat, we are invited to examine our own code of moral behavior. We must ask ourselves: Which of the results of our behavior make us feel holy to God?