Holiness for Mortals
What does it mean to be kadosh, “holy”? I always thought it meant that someone or something that was “holy” was special–perhaps better than–a person or thing that wasn’t. I’m not sure I knew what the opposite of holy was; perhaps it was “not so special.” In reality the word kadosh, or kodesh, takes on a variety of meanings. When we bring in Shabbat, for example, which is the “holy” day of the week, we sanctify it with wine and by kindling lights. When Shabbat ends, we again light a candle and drink wine, blessing the One who mavdil ben kodesh l’chol, “distinguishes between the holy and the mundane.” In this case, the “mundane” refers to the six days of Creation, the “work week.”
We can argue whether Shabbat being “holy” means it’s “better” than the other days of the week, but that’s not my point. Kodesh–holy–consecrated–really means “set apart.” Ritual objects are “set apart” to be used on certain appropriate occasions; although I’m not talking about the “good towels” that no one was ever allowed to touch!
Three times in the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading, Kedoshim, we read a version of, k’doshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh ani, ani ado-nai elo-haychem–“You shall be holy, for I am holy. I am the Lord your God.” God, often referred to as HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “The Holy One, Blessed be He,” is eternally and inherently holy. God is not a “flesh and blood king.” We mere mortals, however, must become holy by performing the mitzvot that God has commanded us to perform, and to refrain from engaging in poor behavior.
This parashah is full of ways for humans to become holy–to engage in God-like behavior–beginning with honoring one’s parents, keeping Shabbat, caring for the needy, and not worshipping idols, to name a few. To me, it can be summed up in Leviticus 19:18: v’ahavta l’ray-acha kamocha, “Love your fellow person as yourself.” That’s not always easy for a variety of reasons, which is a discussion for another time, but the reality is that although no one is perfect, we can still experience moments of holiness, and know that God knows we’re doing our best. God is still our God.
It doesn’t take much to experience moments of holiness, as the Talmud tells us, based on the final verse of Psalm 17: “Even when a person gives a mere peruta (small coin) to a poor person, he merits to receive the Divine Presence, as it is stated: “As for me, I will behold Your face through charity; I will be satisfied, when I awake, with Your likeness” (Bava Batra 10a:)