“What does ‘holy’ mean?” she asked me. She is 5. I had just concluded, or so I thought, a brief explanation of what the Torah says about how to be holy based on last week’s and this week’s Torah portions. The question took me by surprise, so I paused briefly before answering. How would you respond?
This week’s Torah portion begins with a statement that begs the same question and then some: “You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God am holy.” The first question to my mind is: To whom is this addressed? It is not only to kohanim (priests) and levi’im (Levites). It is addressed to all of us, as it says in Exodus 19:6, “you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
The next question seems to be: Are we automatically holy because God is holy? Is this a statement of fact or an invitation or a challenge? Judaism clearly and emphatically teaches that being holy is not automatic. We are made in God’s image, but it is through living our covenant, through studying Torah and putting it into practice that we move toward holiness. Being holy takes hearts, souls and might. Being holy takes humility, patience, perseverance and all those soul traits that Mussar leads us to explore. Being holy takes time and commitment on not a daily basis but an hourly, if not minute-by-minute, basis. It is 24/7/354 (the length of a regular Jewish year). That leads to the main question:
Do we know how God is holy so that we, made in God’s image, know how we too can be holy? Yes, because our sacred texts and traditions guide us. For example, per the prayer Gevurot: Just as God lifts the fallen, so shall we. Just as God heals the sick, so shall we. Just as God frees the captive, so shall we. Holiness means separating ourselves from that which is impure or improper per Rashi. Holiness is raising regular acts to a higher level, such as saying a blessing before eating. Let us consider the rest of what is within the Holiness Code which includes everything from a parallel to the Ten Commandments of not stealing; or murdering; or sexual impropriety; to keeping Shabbat; and then expands to leaving the corners of our field for those in need; to not placing barriers before people. Holiness is all encompassing if we but let it be.
What was my response to the 5-year-old? Holy means being nice and kind and helping people in need and making things special. In a Hillel standing-on-one-foot kind of way, that is the answer, right? PJC
Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is the rabbi of Temple David. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.