Excerpted from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe
Day Ten: Holiness
“For the sin we committed before You by desecrating the Divine name.”
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is a mandate. We are obligated to be holy for without necessarily understanding what holiness demands of us. The German theologian Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) tried to analyze the component parts of the sacred in his book The Idea of the Holy, but Otto’s language is dense and opaque. Holiness, Otto believed, is a mystery, both terrifying and fascinating. He believed that holiness is a non-rational and non-sensory experience that he termed “numinous,” referring to its unknowable quality. As interesting and influential as Otto’s writing is, the book offers little practical guidance on what it could mean to live the lofty and ethereal demands of this call from Leviticus.
As we become more attuned to the sacredness of each day of the ten days of repentance, we confess when we have fallen short of this desideratum. Further on in Leviticus, sanctifying God and profaning God live right next to each other: “You must not profane My holy name, that i may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I the Lord who sanctify you” (22:32). The verse presents what looks like a causal relationship. If I do not profane, then I sanctify. But holiness does not strike us as a neutral state that demands no active striving. We wonder what it means to desecrate God’s name just as we try to understand what it means to make it holy in our act of vidui, confession. Is desecration a conscious act of minimizing God’s presence in our lives or even profaning it, or is it simply ignoring the sacred, pretending that transcendence is not relevant to us? A midrash on the book of Numbers hints at the second:
Entrances to holiness are everywhere.
The possibility of ascent is all the time.
Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.
There is no place on earth without the Prescence.
There are portals to holiness everywhere, but we often walk in the world as if we have no map to them, as if they do not exist. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s interpretation of this midrash prods us to ask if we really strive for holiness on this day and every day after it:
You do not have to go anywhere to raise yourself. You do not have to become anyone other than yourself to find entrances. You are already there. You are already everything you need to be. Entrances are everywhere and all the time. “There is no man who does not have his hour, and no thing that does not have its place (Ethics of the Fathers 4:3).
As we move up the ladder of holiness on Yom Kippur, we realize that we have scaled the heights to arrive at this entrance but feel lower than ever before. We cannot access a way in to God. We gravitate between intimacy and distance. One minute we are close to imbuing everything we do with transcendence and the next we feel all of our inadequacies rising, filling us with dread and humility.
Our prayer moments parallel this experience, taking us up and down with their ascents and descents, mirroring this emotional rise and fall with uncanny unpredictability. We praise God’s name and God’s capacity for mercy, elevating us and giving us the promise to reach out and bridge the chasm. Then suddenly our prayers turn precipitously to human beings and throw us into existential crisis:
Man, his beginning is from dust and ends in dust; risking his life, he gets his brad. He is like a potsherd that cracks, like grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the shadow that passes, like the cloud that vanishes, like the wind that blows, like the dust that flies, and like a fleeting dream…(Unetaneh Tokef prayer)
The impermanence of our condition renders our grasp for the sacred an anomaly. We are there and then we will go, sometimes without notice. We have the same ephemeral quality as shadows, dust, and dreams. We cannot achieve the sacred; we are as breakable as clay. And again, as we immerse ourselves in these doubts and anxieties, the prayer mood shifts again: “But You are the Kind, the Almighty, the living and the everlasting God.” Our frailty is contrasted to God’s stability, and we find ourselves once again on terra firma. We will hold on tightly to the Rock and gain strength from God’s presence.
To be holy in Hebrew is to consecrate or separate something so that it achieves distinction. We step out of our this-worldly experience and into another, one which exudes mystery and strangeness. When Moses experienced revelation at the burning bush, God him to remove his shoes, to take off his layer of this-worldliness so that he could enter another universe of discourse. He had to take off that which separated him from the ground to understand that he was not in a place ruled by expected norms: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). When Moses was called he answered, “Hineni.” I am in the moment. I am fully present. I have answered the call to holiness. Only in that state will the impossible become possible.
We are standing right now, at this moment in time, on the brink of infinite possibility. We stand here as individuals ready for change, enveloped and carried by the love of community. There are no divisions. There are no distractions. As we enter this, the holiest day of the year, we are saying with the setting of the sun that we have let go of the insistence that all is impossible, all the thoughts and intentions and motivations that tell us we can never change. For the next twenty-five hours, we will separate ourselves from this world in order to experience another world where all change is possible. The doors to possibility are opening. They are waiting for us to say hineni: I am fully present here, and I can achieve the impossible.