What Does It Mean To Be Holy? - Vital Transformation

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What Does It Mean To Be Holy?

Part one: Define and explain

Hashem, in His immense love for us, gives us 613 mitzvot as tools to connect to Him. One of these mitzvot, from Parashat Kedoshim, is “קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹש אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃”; “You shall be holy, for I, your God ה, am holy.”[1] Here we welcome Kadosh to mean holy. This rather vague command begs explanation. What is Kedusha? What is holiness? What does that look like? What does that feel like? What it is excluded from the category?

Various Torah scholars have sought to understand Kedusha – holiness. Rashi translates being holy as being separate from immoral relations and sinful acts[2]. Essentially, you are holy if you restrain yourself. This explanation is further expanded on by Ramban who argues that Kedusha is not only being separate from immoral acts but also from self-indulgence[3].  Holiness does not only entail following the letter of the law and abstaining from forbidden things. This becomes apparent when we understand that one can act grossly within the law. Ramban gives the example of eating Kosher food indulgently and excessively; this is being gross with the permission of the Torah–“[4]והנה יהיה נבל ברשות התורה”. Although this vulgar person is acting within Halacha they are not considered Kadosh. Yes, consuming Kosher food all day is technically allowed, but Kedusha encourages us to hold ourselves above the letter of the law to become holy, balanced people. Holiness demands us to go above our standards.

Hashem obligates us to be holy, therefore we serve Him with the correct intentions. Rabbi Marc Angel in his article, “Righteousness and Self-Righteousness” states that the commandment of holiness ensures that we do not follow the Torah with incorrect intentions. For example, doing mitzvot for the sake of how it will make us look– to boost our ego[5]. If we act without Kedusha, we take balance, self-restraint, and proper intentions out of the picture. We should be holy because God is holy; the lofty goal of holiness is for us to separate from the ego, act God-like, and connect to God.

Part two: General application

The concept of Kedusha is so beautifully woven throughout our parashot as we explore the journey of our nation and as we live our daily lives as Jewish people.

Throughout our Parashot, starting with the very origins of our becoming a nation in Parashat Yitro, Hashem has gifted us this opportunity to be a “ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש”, a holy and elevated people. The start of our nation was at Matan Torah when we received the commandments that would guide us in all areas of our lives as Hashem sought to elevate us to holiness. Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch welcomes the infusion of Kedusha, of true intention beyond the fulfillment of the letter of the law, into the service of Hashem; as he urges “All spirit must be developed into letter, into act. All letter, all acts, must have their source in spirit”[6]. As our nation developed, Kedusha continued to impact our day-to-day lives. The very next Parasha, Parashat Mishpatim, Kedusha impacted our duties as slave owners. The Jews were commanded to bring Kedusha into their relationship with their slaves; to go above and treat them better than any other society would. The Talmud says, to make your slaves “equal to you with respect to food and to drink[7]” and the Torah goes on to list many more laws on our treatment of slaves to ensure we are holy in all areas of life. As our journey as a holy nation continued, so too did our relationship with Hashem. Our next stage was the creation of the Mishkan, the dwelling place of Hashem that was “the most holy place”[8]. How is the Mishkan a place of holiness? Rabbi Sacks explains, “The holy is that segment of time and space G-d has reserved for His presence” and “The holy is the metaphysical arena where heaven and earth meet”[9]. The Mishkan was the ultimate expression of Kedusha; we were not commanded to build Him a home, rather we yearned for it; we yearned for the opportunity to go above in our relationship with God. The mirrors in the Mishkan further demonstrate Kedusha. As Rabbi David Silverberg states “the mirrors earned their place in the Mishkan because they serve as the clearest example of the concept of injecting holiness into every area of life”[10]. How so? The mirrors of the Mishkan were the very same ones used by the holy Jewish women in Egypt to enhance their beauty for the sake of Jewish continuation. The beautiful women went above their pain during the horrible times of slavery to ensure אם ישראל חי, exhibiting true holiness thus earning a prominent role in the holy Mishkan for all of time. To truly understand holiness, we needed role models to emulate. Therefore, Hashem initiated Kohanim in the Mishkan, the elevated people of our nation that are placed “on a level of priority and precedence”[11] which  ״ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש״ teaches us we can aim to be like. The Kohanim go above by making the service of God their life focus every day and they inspire us to aim for holiness, to aim for more. Our greatest role model, Moshe demonstrated Kedusha in his reaction after our national tragedy of the Golden Calf. Although entirely let down, hurt, and betrayed by the Jewish people, “Moshe besought the Lord[12]”. He defends his troublesome children, rising above his personal and valid pain effectively teaching us for all of time what true holiness looks like. Nadav and Avihu further demonstrate the need for Kedusha. Weisel in Parashat Shmini teaches us that they were killed because they brought a “strange fire” which was “out of a superabundance of joy” because “they wished to show greater affection and zeal in ministering to G-d, through burning more incense, in addition to the dedicatory sacrifices which they had offered that day”. While they truly had pure intentions, “ they used their own initiative in the arena of the holy, they erred. They asserted their own presence in the absolute presence of G-d. That is a contradiction in terms. That is why they died”[13]; they neglected the obligation to be holy which calls for them to operate under a higher standard and obey God as He says.

Hashem gave us many opportunities to infuse Kedusha in our daily lives. To give us the much-needed space to focus on holiness, Hashem blesses us to “וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא”[14]. Rav Kook praises the Shabbat as a day for the nation to go above, as “a holy day providing the opportunity for the nation to give expression to its true self, to its natural spiritual aspirations[15]”. Our daily service of prayer is the time we are gifted to experience Kedusha, to experience a conversation with Hashem that takes us above this world. As Rav Hirsch beautifully paints, prayer “denotes to step out of active life in order to attempt to gain a true judgment about oneself, that is, about one’s ego, about one’s relationship to God and the world”[16]. Shelley Cohen, in her lessons on prayer, experiences Ramban’s warning of being gross within the permission of the Torah. Shelley shares how when she would be saying Kaddish to honor her son who passed, yeshiva boys would disrespect her by refusing to answer Amen. Even if they did this out of incorrect modesty, they were violating the commandment to be Kadosh and being disrespectful to a mourning mother. They teach us that without the commandment for holiness, people can neglect the level of being extra kind, extra considerate, and extra elevated that Kedusha demands in the name of their service to God. To infuse the obligation of Kedusha in our daily lives, Hashem commands us כיבוד אב” ואם”, to honor our mother and father. This is because respecting our parents “train a person to be sincere and upright, brotherly and forgiving, and they base the life of the society on love of neighbor”[17].  When we go above the natural tendencies that may arise to disrespect our parents, we understand that “Kedushah is the product of the completest mastery by the god-like free-willed human being over all his forces and natural tendencies”[18].

Out of immense love for us, Hashem gives us the opportunity to infuse Kedusha in all areas of our daily lives.

Part three: Personal application

To paint Kedusha, I would invite someone who is contemplating holiness to envision their highest self, their ideal version of themselves, and begin to tap into that. That higher self is my Kadosh self. Tap into your highest self and act in alignment with that version. When I think of being a part of a Jewish family, my Am Kadosh, I picture us as millions of people, from our past, present, and future, who are tapping into our higher selves. We are a people who are looking to not just follow the letter of the law but to go above it. We wanted more than the Torah, we wanted a Mishkan to have Hashem dwell with us. We wanted more to serve Hashem after the Chorban, we wanted prayer to maintain the conversations daily. Hashem gave us prayer, Shabbat, leprosy, and 610 more tools to fulfill our drive for holiness, for more. Hashem encourages us, through the commandment of “קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ”, to aim for this way. As Rabbi Sacks paints “Kedushah in this context means connectedness to the universe beyond the self, to generations past and future, to a community of meaning, and to a transcendental reality that links us, ethically and existentially, to the totality of being”[19]. After having the opportunity in our course to explore Kedusha, I see that it is aiming in every area of our life to make us more.

In my relationship with Hashem, I aspire to serve Him more from a place of my higher, holiest self. Not the mundane, routine, and distracted self that can come up. While that self may be enough, Kedusha motivates me to desire more of myself than that. To me, this looks like observing the Torah with more intention and bringing Him into all areas of my life. This goal is perfectly summed up by Lawrence Keleman when he “defines Kedushah as a state in which a person, even in the midst of performing those physical acts necessary to sustain his body, never strays from the highest intimacy[20].” I crave this level, this intimate holiness which “ is a state in which there are no distractions. It is an experience in which a person becomes so fully united with God that all else is irrelevant.” My biblical role model for a relationship with Hashem that is poetic and absolute is David Hamelech. He emulates a relationship with Kedusha, whereas he says it best, feels like, “My soul clings to You”. I aspire to operate on this level of integrative and vibrant Kedusha.

Just as the Jews were blessed with Kohenim as role models of Kedusha, so too has Hashem blessed me with two specific examples in my life; the IDF and my cousin Yehuda.

Immediately in thinking of Kedusha exercised in action, I think of the IDF. In the very name itself, the D in IDF being for Defense, their mission is clear; never to start war, but rather to simply defend their home. I have read countless stories that describe the IDF going above and beyond in their war etiquette. And since October 7, I have not needed to research the stories, I am hearing of them live. I hear of how the IDF abandoned massive attacks when they spotted one innocent civilian in their midst. I read of the protocol of the IDF that is considerate of sending their soldiers home in accordance with their wife’s nida cycle. I see how the IDF is being, what I can only call Godly, in exercising extreme consideration to the Gazans thus in large part being the ones to free Palestine. The entire Jewish nation is told of how far they go to value each individual life that is taken hostage. My social media platforms are flooded with remarkable stories of the IDF exhibiting holiness and sanctity even in the most painful times. The IDF gives me faith in our ability to reach kedusha and I am grateful to them for their epitomizing Kedusha.

Parashat Kedoshim teaches me that כיבוד אב ואם is the “cornerstone of all social morality[21]” and the route to Kedusha. I believe we all understand how difficult it is to go above rocky conditions and have a respectful relationship with parents. My cousin Yehuda has demonstrated true Kedusha in his active efforts to respect his parents. He has one of the most difficult parental relationships I have ever seen, yet he strives to treat them only with holiness. My cousin Yehuda has taught me and inspired me the most on כיבוד אב וא and overall on being a person who operates under the lofty goal of Kedusha. In his shiur on Kedusha last week, Rabbi Farhi raised the question “How does one know when they are being holy?” His answer came based on the phrase “ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם”, “you shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy.” The litmus test, so to speak, of Kedusha is that when you are being Kadosh, you are feeling closer to Hashem. As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch says “The result of the pursuit of Kedushah is attachment to the Divine, the ultimate goal of all our spiritual strivings.[22]

I have seen firsthand that treating his parents with holiness and respect has brought Yehuda even closer to Hashem. My cousin inspires me to not only bring Kedusha into my relationship with my parents but to all relationships and areas.

[1] Vayikra 19,2 in packet for Parashat Kedoshim

[2] Rashi on Vayikra 19,2 Kedoshim Tihiyu in packet for Parashat Kedoshim

[3] Ramban on Vayikra 19,2 Kedoshim Tihiyu in packet for Parashat Kedoshim

[4] Ramban on Vayikra 19,2 Kedoshim Tihiyu in packet for Parashat Kedoshim

[5] Rabbi Marc Angel in his article, Righteousness and Self-Righteousness, for What does it mean to be holy

[6] Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, Matan Torah in packet for Parashat Yitro

[7] Talmud Bavli, מסכת קידושין דף יז עמוד א, slavery in packet for Parashat Mishpatim

[8] Shemot 26,1, in packet for Parashat Terumah

[9] Rabbi Sacks, Mishkan in packet for Parashat Terumah

[10] Rabbi David Silverberg, copper mirrors in packet for Parashat Pekuday

[11] ספר המצוות לרמב”ם מצות עשה לב, Cohenim in packet for Parashat Tetzaveh

[12] Shemot 32, 11, in packet for Parashat Ki Tissa

[13] Rabbi Sacks, in article for What does it mean to be holy

[14] Shemot 31, 12, in packet for Parashat Ki Tissa

[15] Rav Kook, Shabbat Ha’aretz in Parashat Ki Tissa

[16] Rav Hirsch, Horev, A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances: Prayer as Judgment, in packet for prayer/ Parashat Tzav

[17] Mishlei 1,8, in packet for Parashat Kedoshim

[18] Rav Hirsch, Parshat Kedoshim 19:2, in packet for Parashat Kedoshim

[19] Rabbi Sacks article for Are we still a holy nation

[20] Rabbi Lawrence Keleman article for are we still a holy nation

[21] Rav Hirsch, Introduction to Parshat Kedoshim, in packet for Parashat Kedoshim

[22] Rabbi Mayer Schiller article for are we still a holy nation

Eliyahu Jian May 22, 2024

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