JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review May 25, 2001 / 3 Sivan, 5761


Commanded to be holy


By Gary Rosenblatt


WHAT does it mean to be holy?

After all, thatís what G-d requires of each of us. "You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy" (Leviticus 19: 2). What better time to explore this primary commandment than Shavuos, the festival we mark this weekend, celebrating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai in the eternal moment of Revelation.

Some Jewish sources suggest that holiness implies separation, and that we become holy by separating ourselves not only from the profane but from the ordinary as well. The Torah uses the word "holy" 10 times in describing the nazir, the ascetic who takes it upon himself not to cut his hair or come in contact with wine or dead bodies, implying that abstinence is a form of holiness. The kosher laws, too, seem intended to remind us to separate ourselves from others through what we eat. And we think of holy men as scholars who distance themselves from the rest of us in order to delve into the depths of Jewish texts and focus on an inner quest for purity.

But our rabbis also teach that holiness is about doing for others, not living private lives or withdrawing from the world, but involving ourselves in the community. Rabbi Akiva suggests the fundamental principle of the Torah is found just a few verses later in our text, "Love your fellow as yourself. I am the L-rd" (Verse 18).

Indeed, we can deduce that the most important way to be holy is to emulate G-d, imitatio Dei. It was G-d who visited Abraham after his bris milah, teaching us the mitzvah of bikur cholim, or visiting the sick. As Rashi, the foremost rabbinical commentator, says, "As He is merciful, you be merciful; as He is gracious; you be gracious."

When I recently asked Elie Wiesel how it is possible to have two such opposing notions of holiness ó separation and participation ó he smiled and said, "Since when canít we live with contradiction within Judaism?"

In truth, there are any number of ways for us to interpret what it means to be holy. Rather than equating holiness with piety, for example, we may think of it as the force within us to do good for others, to act ethically and morally, and to live life fully each day. And while there is holiness in the separateness of the kosher laws, there can also be holiness in the very act of eating, recognizing the specialness of what would otherwise seem ordinary, raising the level of the profane to the sacred.

Holiness can also mean recognizing that G-d, not each of us, is the center of the universe.

Rabbi Yochanan Zweig of the Talmudical University of Florida notes that just after the command of holiness, the Torah states: "You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My Sabbath. I am the L-rd your G-d." The lesson, Rabbi Zweig says, is that holiness is our relationship to G-d, who is teaching us to separate ourselves from our self. In other words, rather than seeing ourselves as the center of the universe, we must learn to accept a theocentric universe, and care for our fellow man.

"Itís the opposite of our modern-day values which is all about Me," Rabbi Zweig says.

We are instructed to honor our parents as a means of understanding that we are not the center of the world, and to respect those who gave us life, he continues. And we are commanded to keep the Sabbath, to appreciate that creation is G-dís, His gift to mankind, as another humbling reminder of our limitations and the gratitude we owe Him.

Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership reminds us that holiness is not in separating our private lives from our work but in merging them, infusing our professional vocations with compassion and care.

Virtually all of Leviticus, Chapter 19 commands us to deal kindly with each other, from "You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart; reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him," to setting honest weights and measures, to "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens." And always the affirmation and explanation, "I am the L-rd."

These lessons are particularly important for us to reflect on these days when Israel seems torn asunder from within about how best to live in peace and security with its neighbors, and itself.

How do we reprove a fellow Jew without being disrespectful or hurtful? How do we maintain fairness and integrity? How do we deal with the stranger in our midst?

There are no easy answers, particularly when the stakes are so high. But on Shavuos, when we take pride in the Torah, Judaismís gift to the world of laws and morality, we owe it to ourselves to study its words and consider what makes us holy, and why.


JWR contributor Garry Rosenblatt is Publisher and Editor of the New York Jewish Week Send your comments by clicking

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© 2001, Rabbi Yonason Goldson