What does it mean to be holy?
The portions we have been reading for the last couple of weeks include a section known as “the holiness codes.” They open with the commandment
קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.
This week we close that parenthesis saying (22:31-33):
לא וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם מִצְוֹתַי וַעֲשִֹיתֶם אֹתָם אֲנִי יְהוָֹה
: לב וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל אֲנִי יְהוָֹה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם
: לג הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:
You will guard My commandments and do them; I am God
Do not profane My holy name, but I will be made holy among the children of Israel; I am God Who makes you holy
The One Who brought you from the land of Egypt to be God to you; I am God.
If we had to boil these verses down to their essence, they seem to be saying that it is we who make God holy, even while God makes us holy. But.. what does God need us to make Her holy for? What can this possibly mean?
The great commentator Nechama Liebowitz connects this to the midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana one of the oldest of the homiletic midrashim:
פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא יב - בחדש השלישי ד"ה [ו] אנכי הגדתי
ואתם עדיי נאם י"י ואני אל. תני ר' שמע' בן יוחי אם אתם עדי נאם י"י, אני אל, ואם אין אתם עדיי כביכול אין אני י"י.
The midrash quotes Isaiah, “You are My witnesses… that I am God; before Me there was no God formed, neither shall there be any after Me.” Then Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains: “If you are My witnesses, then I am God, the first One, neither shall any be after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.”
“IF you are not My witnesses, I am not God..” that’s a pretty astonishing statement. Our torah portion says that we make God holy, and the commentary says we make God, God.
How is this possible? What can this possibly mean?
There are two possibilities:
The first is a more or less common sense way to understand it:
The rabbis come up with a few different variations on the theme.
The rabbis tell us that the recitation of the shema (Talmud Berachot 14b) is our witnessing of God’s unity (in the first Paragraph), that is one very practical sanctification of God’s name, literally.
Elsewhere in the Talmud (Yoma 86a via Ein Yaakov) gives a more detailed discussion of how one can sanctify God’s name, focusing on our behavior, and how people witness us behave either honors or disgraces God- i.e. if we act in a way that is shameful, people will take note and say, “look at those Jews, and how badly they act, what a bunch of rotters – they must have a rotten God too – I’m glad I’m not one of them – and this profanes God’s name, conversely, if Jews act well, people say, “Look how honest those Jews are, they must have a great God,” in other words sanctifying God’s name.
One final example from the Tosefta (Bava Kama 10:15) succinctly sums up the above idea, “It is a more serious crime to rob a gentile than a Jew, because of the profanation of God’s name that that causes.”
תוספתא מסכת בבא קמא (ליברמן) פרק י הלכה טו
הגוזל את הגוי חייב להחזיר לגוי חמור גזל הגוי מגזל ישראל הגוזל את הגוי ונשבע ומת חייב להחזיר מפני חילול השם
In other words, in Judaism, mitzvot are given to make our every action holy – that’s why our three verses about holiness begin with a reminder to guard them. Jewish tradition commands us not to separate anything we do from the realm of holy action.
Holiness isn’t something you do in shul, it isn’t lofty thoughts, asceticism, or any kind of belief: it’s every single thing you do, from being mindful of what you eat and where it comes from and who made it, through kashrut, being grateful that you have food by saying blessings, being aware of time and of our limited nature by observing Shabbat, being modest in dress and speech, being honest in business and decent in your treatment of your employees – all things elaborated for us through Jewish law – halachah – mitzvot. When we choose to live through mitzvah, we hallow God – we also have the choice to make ourselves profane, to ignore mitzvot and erase God from the world.
The second possible response to the question of how do we make God holy is a mystical one. The word Kadosh comes from the word for separation.
The primary metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel is that of marriage.
When God tells us in this week’s portion,
Make Me holy, as I make you holy,” it isn’t merely a commandment – it’s a plea. Put Me first, says God.
There are a whole list of things that most of us prioritize before we get to God.
Well, what happens in a human marriage when we start putting things on our priorities ahead of our partner? It’s not that we intend to abandon God, but that as She gets lower and lower on the list, She slips from our mind, and one morning we wake up and She is no longer there.
When God says I make you holy, you must make Me holy – kadesh as related to the word “kidushin,” marriage – God is reminding us that it is impossible to put other gods – whether they’re money or vacation, fame, power, whatever – ahead of Him and still be in the relationship.
Practically speaking, this isn’t really so different than my first point: that in our lives, everything we do has the potential to be blessed and holy if we do them through mitzvot- but in the higher level, this is a profound reminder of how our every choice brings us the opportunity to receive the divine love – or turn away from it.
When we love someone, we see through the eyes of the beloved – we think ‘Oh, look at that, I’ll have to tell him about that later,” or, “Oh, I wish she were here to see this!” and so the beloved is with us all the time. That is what mitzvah is: not a set a bothersome obligations, but the quick thought that God is here, with me, now, and with God, unlike with a human, God really is here, with us, now – to so to speak – keep the lines open by keeping God in our every action and keeping our actions holy.
There’s a story about the famously cranky rabbi, Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotsk. He was walking with his students and he asked them, “where is God?”
They all looked at him in astonishment, and finally one of them was brave enough to pipe up and say, “Rebbe, even the littlest child knows that God is everywhere!”
To which he roared his response back, “Fool, God is only where you let Him in!”
The famous Chasidic master Elimelech of Lizhensk put it more positively, “ In every place where you dwell, in your house and everywhere you go, through the great holiness of your actions, you will increase light and holiness and bring divine grace into the world.