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Parshat Kedoshim: The Meaning of Holiness

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus, co published by OU Press, YU Press & Maggid Books

Derashot Ledorot - Leviticus

Kedusha, holiness, is by all means the most important principle of Judaism. The highest ideal to which any person can aspire is that of holiness. All the commandments of the Torah were given so that Israel could become a “goy kadosh,” “a holy Nation” (Exodus 19:6). And if holiness is really this important, if it is incumbent upon every person to try for holiness – “kedoshim tihyu,” “thou shalt be holy,” as the Bible puts it in today’s portion (Leviticus 19:2) – then it is important for us to understand the meaning of holiness.

The first thing to be said about holiness is that it means something higher and nobler. Our Rabbis (Sifra, Kedoshim 1:2) explained “kedoshim tihyu” as “perushim yihyu,” “thou shalt be separated,” above, higher. Holiness means rising above the commonplace and the vulgar, being exalted above the everyday and the secular. It means taking the soul off to a side and purifying it from the dross which it gathers in the rough and tumble of daily existence. An idea is holy when it is above other ideas. A human being is holy when he or she is separated from and higher than other human beings.

A corollary of this idea is that we are not to tamper with that which is holy if we are to keep it holy. A sefer Torah is not sacred in and of itself, but only because of what we get from it and the attitude we take towards it. No wonder therefore that Jewish law prevents us from touching the scroll with our hands. Take too free and liberal an attitude with what is sacred and it becomes profane. The first of today’s portions records a commandment to the High Priest himself to keep that which is holy above everyday use and common handling – God told Moses to speak to his brother Aaron and tell him not to enter the Holy Temple whenever he so wished at any time (Leviticus 16:2). That which is holy is to be approached with reverence, it must be “perushim” – above, separated, and isolated.

The story is told of a young girl who had been studying at an American college and came from a wealthy home. One summer her father took her on a tour of famous European cities and came to the home where Beethoven lived and composed his great music. When the young lady noticed the piano which the guide told her was Beethoven’s, she approached it with ecstasy and began playing the finest score she had learned in school. After she was finished she asked the guide, “I suppose all the greatest pianists of Europe come here to play on the piano of Beethoven.” “No,” said the guide, “just last week Paderewski

was here and he refused to play on it, because he said that he was not worthy enough to touch Beethoven’s piano.” Indeed that which is holy to a person must be respected and revered, and never dealt with casually. It must be kept above and be holy. If a synagogue is holy it must be entered not with boisterous good-fellowship, but with hushed reverence. If tefillin are holy they must not be dismissed as an extra burden, but put on with the deepest respect. What is holy must be kept aloft and from a distance – and the distance is up, not down.

Now the question is how does one attain this holiness, this state of being exalted and higher? Does it just “happen” to you? The answer is decidedly, no. You cannot just sit around, wish for it, and have it descend upon you. Our second point is that you have got to act, and act hard, in order to obtain this most cherished of all feelings.

A good illustration at this point would be a comparison of two mountains which are famous in Jewish history. They are Mount Sinai in the Sahara Desert and Mount Moriah in the middle of Jerusalem. Mount Sinai was that mountain about which the Israelites gathered and waited for three days until, in the words of the Bible, God descended upon the mountain in a pillar of fire. In a breathtakingly dramatic scene God came down upon Mount Sinai and delivered a Torah to a waiting people. The excitement was great, the atmosphere tense, and the event historic.

Such is the importance of Mount Sinai. The history of Mount Moriah revolves around Abraham and his son Isaac. Here God did not come down to give greatness to mankind. It was Abraham who was commanded to sacrifice his beloved Isaac atop this mountain, and it was a three day journey – not three days of waiting around – but a three day struggle with his conscience, three days of wrestling with himself, three days of thunderous conflicts between his mind, his heart and his soul. And Abraham came to the top of the mountain and lifted his hand ready to slaughter his son in accordance with God’s wish – until the angel stopped him just in time, saying that he had proven his loyalty to God. Here God did not come down to man, but man rose up to meet God. This is the story of Mount Moriah. No wonder therefore that Mount Sinai was never holy to the Jews and today atop that mountain there is not a Temple but a Christian monastery. But Mount Moriah remains the holy center of Zion atop which there rose the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple itself.

So holiness means a state of being higher and nobler and detached, and such holiness does not come automatically; it requires hard labor.

But the third point to consider is: Just how does one “rise” to kedusha? What is it that can make a man determine to work hard in order to obtain holiness? And the answer is: challenge. When the Torah tells us “kedoshim tihyu,” it means not to be a hermit or recluse, not to escape from life; quite the contrary, to accept life as a challenge, meet it on its own grounds, face it and rise above it – not escape but involvement is the technique for attaining holiness.

Our Rabbis (Leviticus Rabba, Kedoshim 24:8) meant just that when they observed that in the book of Daniel, heaven is referred to only once as being possessed of kedusha (4:5), whereas concerning this world in the here-and-now, we are twice told to be holy: “kedoshim tihyu” and “vehitkadishtem” (Leviticus 11:44). And they explain that in heaven, where there is no Evil Urge, kedusha is mentioned only once, whereas on Earth, where man is faced with the challenge of the Evil Urge, the challenge of temptation and ambition and greed, kedusha is mentioned twice. For not only is holiness necessary to combat the Evil Urge, but the Evil Urge itself is the challenge which spurs us onto greater holiness, much as a crass stone will sharpen the blade of an expensive knife. And in order to illustrate this point, our Rabbis tell the story of a king who appointed guards for his wine-cellar – half of them nezirim, people who never drink alcoholic beverages, and the other half shikorim, chronic alcoholics. After the day’s work, the king paid the shikorim twice as much as the nezirim – because it required twice the energy, twice the perseverance, and twice the will-power for the shikorim to resist the temptation to taste the wine.

It certainly is easy for a person of wealth and substance to observe the Sabbath. If such an individual does so, he is a good Jew – but not necessarily a holy one. But let a poor person, who would go hungry if he did not work on Shabbat, observe the Sabbath – such a person is holy. Such an individual has met the yetzer hara and conquered it. Such an individual has two measures of holiness, and is therefore holier than others.

This congregation knows how I feel about people who center their entire religious lives about the saying of kadish. And yet I cannot help but see a spark of kedusha in a man who has not visited a synagogue in years, or perhaps even in decades, a man who has forgotten his Ivrit (Hebrew) and can read only with the greatest difficulty, come to shul to recite the kadish despite the stares that greet his faltering recitation and perhaps the sneer and ridicule of those who are more accustomed to prayer. It is a challenge for a man of that sort to rise to the saying of kadish – and if he does, more power to him – twice the kedusha!

And this matter of accepting the challenge to holiness is not restricted to only Shabbat or kadish. It covers the entire world of human endeavor. In all phases of life – whether personal or communal, individual or collective – it holds true that the greater the challenge, the greater the holiness.

The simplest answer to our quest for the meaning of holiness, the one which includes our three points of being above, requiring action, and rising to challenges, lies in the entire portion we just read. Would you like to know how to be holy, “kedoshim tihyu”? Then read on as the Torah teaches us: Revere parents and treat them with respect; observe the Sabbath, no matter what the cost; do not worship the idols of our day, whether they be profit and money, or science and quack cures for the spirit; be charitable and philanthropic, not miserly and parsimonious; do not steal; do not be treacherous and two-faced, do not be a fence-sitter; do not lie or otherwise conceal the truth; pay your laborers on time, cut out the sweat-shops and do not exploit the less fortunate; do not put a stumbling block under the blind man; do not obstruct justice; do not slander one another and talk evil of a man behind his back; do not hate another person; and, finally, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” All of these sound everyday-ish and ordinary. Yet holiness is their result. Meet the challenges of life in these matters and you will have risen to the ethereal heights of holiness.

Such, then, is the eminently practical meaning of holiness in Judaism. Respect it, work for it, accept it as a challenge – and it will give you that uplift which spells the difference between a life boring in its monotony and one thrilling in its adventurous elevation.