I often wonder how an esoteric term like “holy” entered our lexicon. People use terms about holiness like “Holier than Thou,” “Holy Smokes,” or “Holy Cow,” that probably have no real meaning to them other than being a figure of speech. For me, holiness has a spiritual and divine quality, and I ask myself: “Do I recognize the difference between what is holy and what is not? How am I supposed to feel when I encounter a holy moment or a sacred experience right here and now?”
This week’s “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19:2 and 20:26 invites us to learn about holiness and how to achieve it in our lives;
“The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, you shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
Three principles are suggested: Each one of us is capable of achieving holiness through right actions; feeling close to God makes us feel holy; and we need to interact ethically with people to feel holy.
“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel” tells us that everyone is capable to achieve holiness. From first read it seems that the message is addressed to the entire community as a whole, but Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin from Volozhin makes an important point – that Moses was actually meant to address each individual separately because he/she has the unique individualized potential for holiness. Regardless of one’s age or gender, talent or ability, everyone should be able to uncover his/ her potential for holiness to the best of his/her own ability.
“You shall be holy” is presented in the plural future tense. It is the prescribed state of holiness of the People of Israel that holiness is not an inherited quality. Rabbi Hayim Ben-Atar, author of “Or Hahayim,” asserts that the future tense alerts us not to think that we are already holy but rather, holiness is a goal for us to achieve. Furthermore, he describes holiness as a metaphor for unlimited gates. As we pass one gate of holiness, there is another gate waiting, and another. Similarly, there are many levels of holiness which are available for us to achieve.
“For I, the Lord, your God, am holy” is presented in the singular present tense and is the ascribed state of holiness of God. God is holy so we too, have the potential to be holy. The Halachic Midrash, Sifrah Kadoshim 1:1, suggests that we become holy by the process of imitating God.
The connecting core for these three principles of holiness is set in the commandments for actions. For example, if we are kind, just, and loving, we can enter into a relationship with God, which in turn will bring holiness to our life. When we greet another person with a smile, when we show sensitivity to the environment, when we help the poor and care for global justice we walk before God, connect with God, and become holy. Thus, we are given all the opportunities to build holiness in our daily lives.
It takes mindfulness to recognize the distinct feeling of holiness. My suggestion would be to create an intention for holiness before doing something – like before putting a dollar in the hat of a homeless person. Ask: How does it feel after performing a good did? If you feel a rush in your veins, a pumping heart and a sense of satisfaction and wholeness, than you know that you achieved holiness. This extraordinary feeling of holiness will also assure you that you are connected to God in the way this week’s portion teaches us.
May we continue to walk on this personal journey of holiness and spiritual purity with the intention to sanctify the mundane, as we pass thru one gate of holiness after another.