Parashah Ponderings

How do we begin to understand what it means to be “holy”?

Parashat Kedoshim 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת קְדשִׁים
Torah Portion: Leviticus 19:1-20:27

“You shall be kedoshim – holy – for I, Adonai, you God, am kadosh – holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Sounds simple, right? Not! What does the word “holy” – kodesh or its plural form, kedoshim – mean? If we can figure that out, then how do we apply that idea to God? How do we apply that idea to human beings? Are we to be holy in the same way that God is holy? Is our holiness different from but complementary to God’s holiness? These are big and important questions that I can’t begin to answer in the space of just a few paragraphs. In fact, finding the answers involves a lifelong quest. Where do we even start to understand what it means to be “holy”?

Perhaps the best way to start understanding holiness is by looking for examples of things we might identify as holy. This seems to be the approach of the Torah. In this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, after God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to be holy, the Torah then offers a lengthy list of shalls and shall-nots that instruct Israel how to live a holy life. The list includes social legislation, ritual commands, and more. Items on the list can be categorized as “justice” or “love,” such as leaving the corners of our fields for the poor, in the case of justice, and “love thy neighbor as they self” and “you shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” in the case of love. In other words, the Torah suggests that holiness entails a combination of justice and love, a combination of actions that help create order amidst chaos and an internal drive to recognize yourself – perhaps even the image of God – in others.

I read two things this week that exemplify what the Torah is talking about. The first is this quote by Rav Avraham Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel:

The purely righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom. (Arpilei Tohar, 1914)

Rav Kook took a lot of heat from the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem for his open-heartedness. He did not shun the likes of Herzl, who operated from purely political and secular perspectives. And though he clung to a traditional notion of Jewish chosenness, he spoke about the inherent worth of all human beings:  “For only in a soul rich with the love of creatures and the love of man, can love of the nation soar to the height of its nobility and its spiritual and practical greatness.” Rav Kook’s version of holiness was one of humility. He was not naive. He had firm beliefs. But he practiced and taught a Judaism that always made room for “the other.” That is one example of holiness.

Another example of holiness is exhibited by a group that was featured this week in our local press, the Global Autism Project. Founded about 20 years ago, the Global Autism Project is led by a woman named Molly Ola Pinney, who has dedicated her life to supporting families with children who have autism. Pinney and a team of volunteers are embarking on a trip this weekend to Eastern Europe specifically to ensure that children who have autism who have fled Ukraine have the needs met in their new homes. Partnering with other organizations, for example, her team will be distributing vouchers for 30 days of housing so that refugee families with children with autism have a space to re-group and find order in their lives. Though the war is happening in Ukraine, the chaos it has engendered is not confined to Ukraine’s borders, and there is no guarantee that the war won’t soon expand beyond those borders. Needless to say, Pinney and her team are exhibiting extreme courage and selflessness in pursuit of justice for people with autism. They are doing holy work.

We cannot all be like Rav Kook or Molly Pinney. But we can look at Kook and Pinney and get an idea of what it means to “be holy:” working for justice; working from a place of love; giving up something of ourselves so that others may flourish. Kook and Pinney understand that we all have “corners of our fields” – portions of time, money, property, egos – that rightly belong to those who need them, despite our impulse to claim them exclusively as our own.

Certainly, there is more to holiness than what Kook and Pinney show us, but they show us quite a lot. As we seek to understand what it means to be holy and then search for holiness in our own lives, these two give us a good place to start.

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan