Wholly Holy?

Today’s words of Torah are brought to you by the Hebrew word “Kodesh”.

“Kodesh” means “holy”. In this week’s parasha the Jewish People are enjoined to be a “Holy People”. The Parasha goes on to explain just what that means. However,  an examination of the entire Torah quickly shows that it is not only “people” who can be holy!

When Moses encounters G-d at the burning bush, Moses is told he is standing on “holy ground”.

Sabbaths and Festivals are “holy days”.

Aaron and his son’s clothing are described as “holy garments”. 

Food can be holy.

Oil for lighting the Menorah is holy.

Oil for anointing a priest — a kohen — is holy.

The ark is holy.

The first born of certain animals are holy; the first of the fruit of the trees are also holy. 

And of course Israel is “the holy land”. 

The three letter root in Hebrew — kuf/dalet/shin — upon which the word “Kodesh” is built means “separate” or “set apart”. Holy people, holy objects, holy food, holy days, are all “set apart” for service to the divine. They are dedicated for G-d’s use. 

The favorite way of referring to G-d in classic rabbinic literature is not to use the term “Adonai” or “Hashem”.  In classic Rabbinic literature  G-d is often  referred to  as “Kadosh Barukh Hu” — the Holy, Blessed One. 

Thus, in this week’s Torah reading, we are told that the entirety of the Jewish People is to be “holy”, that is, set apart by G-d, for G-d, to bring the knowledge of G-d to the rest of humanity. That is our special work, our mission in the world. But G-d is the only being that is totally holy, whose essence is holiness. We humans are of flesh and blood. The only way we can be holy is to somehow connect to G-d’s holiness, to build a path to the Source of Holiness and to share in that holiness. Without that connection to G-d, we can still be good people, we can still be generous people, we can still be compassionate people, but we cannot be holy people. 

There is a verse in the prayer in the Amidah, which all of our 5th and 6th graders will learn for their b’nai mitzvahs, which declares “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, Adonai Tsevaot, Meloh Kol Ha-aretz Kevodo.” “Holy Holy Holy is G-d, the entire world is filled with G-d’s glory!” Each time we recite the word “Kodosh” it is the custom to rise on our toes. It is as if we are reaching upwards to partake of the holiness of G-d. But this action is merely symbolic of our aspiration to be holy. Our parasha give us the path we need to walk along to be a holy people. To be holy we need to follow the ethical rules and practice the ritual observances established by Jewish life. To be holy we need to love our neighbor, take care of the poor, treat the stranger with kindness, respect our parents and observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. It is through walking this path that we can elevate ourselves to be at least partly holy — not by standing on our toes!

Prof. Solomon Schechter, one of the great Jewish scholars of the twentieth century, once asked: “Where are the Jewish saints? In other communities you have a long list of saints. Churches are named after saints. Where are the Jewish saints?”

Schechter answered his own question: “Jewish saints do not form a sect apart. You find them in the very midst of the community. They are not raised on a special pedestal,  a….[person] who works as a doctor can be a saint, a……[person] who works as a laborer can be a saint… a woman who works as a mother can be a saint… It is sometimes even possible  to achieve a degree of holiness in the pulpit—surprising as that may be.”

Shabbat Shalom