On Holiness: Parasha Kedoshim

Leviticus 19:2

by Nancy Coren

April 24, 2021

If I were to ask you to name some things that are holy, you might suggest that G-d is holy, life is holy, and the Torah is holy.  But then if I asked you for a definition of what the word “holy” means, you might feel less confident about your answer.

In this week’s parasha, Kedoshim, we are told, “k’doshim tih’yu ki kadosh ani adoshem alokaychem…. You shall be holy because I, your G-d, am holy (Lev. 19:2). With respect to this statement, holiness is G-dliness.  It is a unique quality of G-d that G-d shares with us Jews but to a lesser degree.  G-d’s holiness cannot be corrupted, but even the greatest holy individual amongst us can be influenced to stray from the path of righteousness.  Human beings are susceptible to the pressures of society.  That is why Maimonides wrote that “if a person finds himself living in an immoral environment, he should relocate elsewhere, and that if he cannot find a single society that is moral, he should flee to the wilderness and live as a recluse rather than subject himself to the impact of immoral surroundings.”  The idea behind such a statement, is that just as one would want to protect their physical self from violence or danger, one should also want to protect their spiritual self from deterioration.

How do we learn how to be holy and strive to be holy?  Judaism stresses that for a Jew, the goal is met by observing the mitzvoth.  It might begin with the most rudimentary level of having a belief in G-d and rejecting idolatry.   At a higher level, it might involve honoring one’s parents even to the point of caring for them when they need help in their advanced age and observing Shabbat.  In truth, for Judaism holiness is not achieved by separating oneself from the world, but rather by observing the boundaries that G-d sets upon our everyday actions.  Those boundaries are found in mundane aspects of life such as marriage (which is called kiddushin/notice the relationship to the word kadosh), our sexual relationships, how we eat, how we gain money, and what we do with our money once we have earned it.   Even how we involve ourselves in the betterment of the world by doing acts of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) is part of how we aim to achieve holiness.  When we allow Shabbat and the chagim (holy days) to be more than just another day of the week for “business as usual” and focus on having a period of time when we can experience holiness in time, we nourish our souls. The holiness code of mitzvoth found in great number in today’s parasha is designed to help us give attention to that spiritual part of ourselves that would otherwise be neglected if we only paid attention to our bodily needs.

If you look at the world population, it is 7.9 billion individuals. As of 2021, the world's "core" Jewish population, those identifying as Jews above all else, is 15.7 million (or 0.2 % of the 7.89 billion humans). If I did my math correctly, we make up less than .2% of the world’s population.  If we are such a small group, one might ask what difference can it possibly make whether or not we attempt to maintain our commitment to being a holy people. Obviously, we are not in the business as Jews of trying to make the whole world Jewish.  As a people, however, we are in the business, so to speak, of trying to shape the world in a positive way, not just for ourselves but for those who will come after us.  Although we are living in a world fraught with conflicts, terrorism, and tyranny we still maintain a vision of a world when differences will be respected and all people will be united in harmony recognizing the oneness of G-d.  When we continue along our path of striving to be holy, we are indeed saying that eventually we believe that goodness will prevail, that darkness will be dispelled, and light will fill the world.  The act of pursuing holiness is not as some might have you believe, a way of putting others down or “lording” oneself above another individual and their pursuits.  In fact, in parashat, kedoshim, we are told “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am HaShem.” (Lev. 19:18).. Rabbi Akiva selected this statement of how to be holy as the essence of Judaism.

By loving our neighbor as our self, the expectation is that we will show that love through our actions.  That one statement, when acted upon, has the potential to bring a sense of meaning to life and to dispel the darkness that we often feel surrounds us.

  1. Today I heard it asked, “Do we live by the mitzvot because of belief in a reward in Olam HaBah? Or do we live by the mitzvot because they add meaning to life?”
  2. Do you have a belief that eventually in time, light will fill the world and darkness will be dispelled?

Shabbat Shalom.

Painting: The Light of Kotel, by Elena Kotliarker. <a href="https://www.elenakotliarker.com/shop/original-acrylic-painting/the-light-of-kotel-impressionist-figurative-painting/">For more information on this painting.</a>