What does it mean to be holy?
TorahParshat Kedoshim

What does it mean to be holy?

Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

The Hebrew word for holy or holiness — kodesh — finds its way into our Jewish lives in ways many Jews remember or recognize. We discuss chol (the weekday) versus kodesh (Shabbat and chagim). We daven the Kedusha for Shacharit. In this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, God tells the Israelites, “kedoshim tihiyu” — you will be holy — and details the many things the Israelites must do or are forbidden from doing to maintain
an acceptable level of holiness in God’s eyes.

In Or HaChayim, a medieval mystical commentary, we learn that the use of the future tense in this verse — tihiyu — implies that holiness is an ongoing process, that we must live in the ways of Torah each day, and that it is not one that we can ever master completely.

Rambam (Teshuva 7:5) teaches that at the end of the Jews’ time in exile, Jews will do teshuvah and immediately be redeemed, implying that, as Jews, we will become holy upon the arrival of the Moshiach.

In this parsha, there are only a few positive commandments we should follow to achieve holiness, most notably: praising Adonai as our God; obeying all of God’s laws and commandments; honoring the elderly; living a life of justice; loving the stranger who lives beside us; and living
in the land of milk and honey.

Similar to the Ten Commandments, much of this parsha defines holiness as things we should not do, and the punishment we would endure should we engage in these forbidden activities, such as: laying with a man as one does with a woman; various detailed circumstances of adultery; and
engaging in sexual relations with a menstruating woman.

How strange that in a parsha about achieving holiness most of the text is quite hostile and threatening, outlining all actions that would undermine our holiness! Additionally, while some directives are still relevant in our modern times, many no longer apply to our modern-day and/or more liberal sensibilities.

Instead, let’s imagine more positive actions and ways of being that allow us to tap into our innate holiness.

So, we return to our initial question: What is holiness? And how can we take small steps each day to strive toward the holiness God envisions for us beyond what this parsha outlines?

In his iconic book “I and Thou,” Jewish philosopher Martin Buber finds holiness in relationships and by recognizing the hidden divinity in each of us. As humans, we can be God-like by exercising our power to sanctify moments and objects.

This reflection on holiness through this week’s parsha pairs beautifully with the spiritual journey of counting the Omer that we recently embarked upon during Pesach and continues until the revelation of the Torah on Shavuot. During these meditative and
reflective days, I pray that we find sparks of holiness within ourselves and others in our daily lives.

What are some moments in your relationship with others that have felt holy to you recently? How can we grow and learn from our past words and actions to engage with others in a way that allows us to feel God’s presence in our work and personal connections? Where have you
observed holiness in our world?

If you’d like to share your moments holiness with me, I’d be honored to receive them. Email me at cantorgreene@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.Shabbat Shalom. PJC

Cantor Stefanie Greene is the conductor of the Pittsburgh chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. Teaching Jewish Music, Israel, and Torah. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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