Sanctification through Mitzvah

Kedoshim By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 23, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

What is the nature of holiness? I’m not sure that our noisy, frenetic, secular lives ever prompt us to raise the question. And yet it lies at the very heart of the Torah’s message to Israel. Just before Sinai God singles out Israel as God’s “treasured possession… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5–6).” Again this week God instructs Moses: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy (Lev. 19:1–2).”

In fact, the rabbis stressed that the parasha of K’doshim was of such supreme importance, containing so many of Judaism’s basic laws, that it, unlike other revelations, was revealed by Moses directly to the entire community, and not first to Aaron and then the elders and only thereafter to Israel. An early sage, Abba Shaul, compared Israel to the retinue of a king. Their duty is to heed his every command, never allowing themselves to be far removed from him.

But we haven’t gotten very far yet. What is to distinguish God’s retinue in this world? Are we to be singing God’s praises or doing public relations for the Lord? The rabbis explicitly reject such a travesty. That would reduce God’s holiness to a function of our advertising. If we praise God, then God would be holy; if not, God would be less than holy. But the words of the Torah “for I am holy” specifically rule out any divine dependence. God is holy irrespective of what Israel might say or do.

Accordingly, the rabbis assert that the commandment to be holy is a call to set ourselves apart, using the Hebrew term perushim, which is identical with the name of the Pharisees or those who separated themselves. By way of elaboration, the rabbis add: “If you sanctify yourselves then I [God] will take it as if you sanctified me; and if not, as if you failed to sanctify me”. In short, holiness is a matter of deeds, not words. The unintended consequence of ennobling our lives through holy acts will be to sanctify God.

In the spirit of this rabbinic insight, I would like to argue that holiness in Judaism begins with self– denial. The basic thrust of the Torah is to limit our freedom of action. In Jewish law the proverbial 613 commandments break down into 365 proscriptions and only 248 prescriptions. The ideal is not to be governed by impulse, nor to try out everything that we are capable of doing. Dissipation is a danger to both health and truth. Judaism is our Walden Pond where simplicity is the key to mastering life, and less is more, and “a man is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to let alone (Thoreau).”

As Jews we elevate the natural by subjecting it to divine regulation. We sanctify ourselves by abstaining from eating whatever we please or working whenever we can or having sex with whomever we take a fancy to or keeping whatever we earn. After a day of fasting and prayer, study and introspection in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, we leave with a renewed sense of purity and wholeness. Boundaries help us to concentrate our energies and control our passions, creating space in our lives for God. If we take up all the room neither God nor anyone else can every enter the purview of our existence.Separation, then, is a way of contracting the self and shrinking the ego. I regard the daily donning of the talit as an act of self–diminution. By covering our head as we wrap ourselves completely in that holy garment, we confine our reach and make space for the presence of God. In the darkness of that withdrawal, we catch a glimpse of eternal light. It is a moment when the letters of the Hebrew word “I”, ani (aleph, nun, yud), dissolve and reassemble themselves into the mystical name for God, ayin (aleph, yud, nun). In our solitude, beneath the talit, we intone the gentle words of Psalm 36:8–11:

How precious is Your constant love, O God. Mortals take shelter under Your wings. They feast on the abundance of Your house, You give them drink from Your stream of delights. With You is the fountain of life, in Your light we are bathed in light. Maintain Your constant love for those who acknowledge You, and Your beneficence for those who are honorable.

There is still a third dimension to the Jewish concept of holiness. Beyond a partial separation from the quest of dominion and a steady exercise of ego contraction, holiness requires attachment to community. The most sacred moments in Jewish life are experienced in concert with other Jews. A minyan of Jews is the indispensable setting for public prayer, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish, the yizkor service, and a wedding. The synagogue is an island of holiness in a sea of profanity. Holiness is not left to the arbitrary definition of the individual in terms of what might make him or her feel good. We celebrate Shabbat and the seders in the midst of our families; we pore over sacred texts be–hevruta, collaboratively with kindred souls. Going it alone is not a religious virtue in Judaism. On the contrary, tradition, the repository of generations of religious experience, and community, the symbol of klal yisrael, are the guide and venue for bringing God into our personal lives.

We live in a post–rational age awash in the search for spirituality. But much of that quest is little more than an extension of self into the realm of religion. Our challenge is to convert that hunger for holiness into a Jewish religious idiom which places a premium on finding God beyond the self. Paradoxically, as the rabbis knew long ago, the yoke of the Torah has the power to set us free.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Aharei Mot K’doshim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.