Kedoshim 5774 – How can we ‘be holy’?

Lev. 19:1-20:7

The portion Kedoshim begins: “And G-d spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation …” So this is an ideal opportunity to consider what Moses was told to share with us as a community.

Kedoshim tih’yu – ‘you shall be holy’, or, more literally, as kedoshim is plural, ‘you shall be holinesses’, or perhaps, ‘you shall be collectively holy’. The implication here seems to be that, whatever holiness is, we must achieve it not so much individually, as through community. Together, we can make holy times, holy places, holy ways of eating, buying, selling, giving, receiving, thinking, speaking, doing, being, holy relationships.

We are made ‘in the image of G-d’, and we are told that we shall be holy, because G-d is holy. Ani YHVH – Ani YHVH elohim. Throughout Leviticus 19, G-d is referred to as both YHVH, the Compassionate One, and Elohim, the One Who Sets Rules, Boundaries and Judgment. So to become holy we must be both compassionate and disciplined. This passage, sometimes called the Holiness Code, is a core chapter of the ‘how-to’ guide for becoming a G-d -reflection, becoming holy, and increasing G-d’s holiness in the world. Yes, we can increase G-d’s holiness. Yitgadal v’yitkadash – magnify and make holy. It’s one of the bold, revolutionary ideas of Judaism. Our metaphor is that G-d originally contracted – got out of the way – in order to make space for the world and us to come into being. It’s up to us to bring G-d back in. G-d is absent unless we acknowledge or call on G-d. G-d is our King because we commit to being G-d’s servants. G-d is Judge when we accept there is an ethical dimension to life. G-d’s compassion and justice exist only when we see, or better still, embody those qualities.

Holiness as an aspect of G-d is impossible to comprehend, yet Leviticus 19 teaches us that it’s within our reach: holiness is achieved not through lofty generalities but through practicalities and specifics. Holiness is in the details1. Leviticus 19 is an impressive code for living, and it seems that we are being called to sign up to it. But Jewish tradition discourages us from making vows or promises, as it’s so easy to fall short of them. So I’ve been experimenting with the text and commentaries on Leviticus 19 to draft a set of 22 statements that could perhaps be described as both interpretation and aspiration. I’m happy to make copies available afterwards if anyone wants to consider them alongside the Torah text. Here they are:

  1. Living and acting in community, may we make ourselves holy, for we are made in the image of G-d, and G-d is holy.
  2. May we revere our mothers and fathers, and keep and cherish each Shabbat, and do these with equal commitment for G-d who is both compassionate and just.
  3. May we not let our attention and behavior get pulled away from G-d and the spirit of Torah in favour of lesser values, for it is G-d we serve.
  4. May we approach our need to eat and consume, with mindfulness of G-d who is the Creator of all we consume, with respect for the ethical imperative to avoid waste, with willingness to share what comes to us and not hoard it, knowing that to do otherwise is to deny our common bond of humanity.
  5. May we not keep all that we earn nor all that is available for our pleasure, but always give a portion to the poor, to those who do not have what we have, and to those who we would not think as being ‘one of us’; to serve other people in this way is to serve G-d.
  6. May we not take from others, nor cheat or lie or swear falsely – to do so would be to dishonor G-d, and encourage turning away from G-d; may we recognize personal and community integrity as G-d-in-action.
  7. May we pay those we owe, fairly and promptly.
  8. May we not wish anyone ill, or exploit the misfortunes or vulnerabilities of others, but act as though they were G-d who sees and hears all we do and decides our final judgment.
  9. May we show no bias towards poor or rich, but treat each person fairly.
  10. May we not gossip, nor shame others; rather, may we see ‘that of G-d in every one.’2
  11. May we not hate, bear grudges, take revenge, or reprove without respect, but do all we can to transform evil wherever we find it, and to repair our relationships.
  12. May we love the Other, knowing that they are ourselves, we are all responsible for each other, and that to love the Other is to love G-d.
  13. May we respect diversity and difference, deliberating with care when mercy and justice are at stake.
  14. May we not engage in magical thinking or superstitious practices, but may we also recognize that the profound and incomprehensible mystery of G-d lies at the heart of all existence; may we engage in ritual observances that sanctify times, actions and G-d, in ways that train us and sustain us in making distinctions where they need to be made.
  15. Within sacred community, may we acknowledge our sins, and atone for them. May G-d be our frame of reference in every part of our lives.
  16. May we be good caretakers of G-d’s world, for while it is our responsibility, it does not belong to us.
  17. Our children are not our belongings, so may we seek no benefit from them.
  18. May we see the face of G-d in both the wise and the old.
  19. May we love the stranger as one of us, knowing what it means to be a stranger or caught in adversity. We do these things, above all, for G-d.
  20. G-d holds the balance of justice and mercy, right and wrong, holiness and unholiness.
  21. G-d brought us out of Egypt – our personal and collective narrowness and hardness of heart – so that we may know that we share in holding the balance of justice and mercy, right and wrong, holiness and unholiness.
  22. Kedoshim tih’yu – we are commanded to become holinesses. The ultimate goal of holiness is not separation but unification – using intentionality and actions to lift the mundane towards G-d, and to play our part in extending G-d’s holiness to everything and everybody. By serving G-d through observing the commandments of ethical behavior and sacred ritual, may we strive to become truly a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, in the image of G-d’s holiness, and holy to G-d, from Whom all holiness flows.

Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei-fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, YHVH tzuri v’goali. Amein.

(May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable before You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Ps. 19:15)

  1. “Le bon Dieu est dans le détail.” (Gustave Flaubert, 1821-80)
  2. “Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of G-d in every one.” (George Fox [Quaker], letter from Launceston Jail ‘to Friends in the Ministry’, 1656)

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