Creating holiness
TorahParshat Ki Tissa

Creating holiness

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35


This is the key question in Jewish education. Why should I do this? Why should I like it? Why should it be part of my life? The “whys” are endless. This is good. Asking why helps us understand the power and meaning Judaism can have in our lives.

Asking why might seem like a novelty because for millennia Judaism was such a default position that Jews either didn’t feel the need to ask or have any other option. However, we’ve been in a new reality for some time. Many Jews — for example those who read divrei Torah in their local Jewish newspaper — are “in” and intuitively understand the “why” of Judaism, but more Jews are “out,” not connected with formal expressions of Jewish living either through home customs or institutions. They may ask why they should bother with Jewish life.

For those of us in education, these are the questions that drive us, that shape our plans and efforts. We know that we can’t rely on “because” or other default answers.

In an odd way, parshat Ki Tissa can show us one answer. In Exodus chapter 30, the Levites are told how to create the anointing oil. We read a recipe to make it in bulk followed by instructions describing how it will be used to make all sorts of things in the mishkan holy. We are instructed to take a variety of ingredients, mix them up, and in so doing we can declare the infused concoction “holy.” We have made something holy. And then we use that to make other things holy. We, ancient Jews, made a thing that we declared holy. Sure, God instructed it but there is nothing supernatural written about it. The oil is infused with spices, not lightning bolts, not manna from heaven, nothing miraculous. It’s just oil and spices. We accept it as holy and we use it to create holiness.

Holy means separate, distinct, set aside. Holiness may have echoes of divinity, may have connotations of something heavenward, but it doesn’t have to be that. We create holiness ourselves, all the time. We set things and times apart to be distinct and separate all the time. Rosh Hashanah is holy when we set the time aside. Baking hamantaschen can be holy, too, when we set the time aside to do something special (and for a mitzvah, to boot).

One of my favorite ways to create my own sense of holiness is to make a challah. Nothing says “time set aside for a special purpose” like the smell of fresh challah. My tip is using a bread machine. (Given the cost of a loaf of challah, a basic bread machine will return the investment in just over half a year.) I use the dough setting to let the machine do all the work. In 90 minutes, I have the dough ready. I cut it into three strips, braid ‘em up, slide into the oven and voila, fresh challah.

Why do we do Jewish things? Because it allows us to push back from the demands of the world, set aside some space and time and indulge in a little holiness. Back in the Torah’s day, anointing oil was the thing. Today, the smell of fresh challah tells everyone that holiness is just about to arrive, that time is about to be set aside and we can enjoy our lives as we wish.

Here’s my super simple recipe for the bread machine. Let me know how it comes out.

Bake at 350 F to 375 F for 20-30 minutes, depending on how moist or dry you like
your bread.

Add in the following order:

1 egg, in a measuring cup, then add water to equal 1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons of
liquid and egg
1 1/2 tablespoons margarine
3 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons yeast PJC

Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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