This week we read about the two tenets of Judaism: ritual and ethics. We read descriptions of and proscriptions for the sacrifices, and then we read the words:
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy”(Lev. 19:2b).
The goal and commandement of this week is to be holy. All the commandments of the Torah were given so that Israel could become a Holy Nation. If Holiness is really this important, then it is essential that we understand what it means to be holy.
The quest for holiness is not easy. It seems that every religion, every philosophy has their own interpretation of what makes us holy. Holiness is a difficult word to define. It means to set aside, to separate, and to raise up. On Friday night when we make kiddush, we are taking ordinary (and sometimes subpar) grape juice and raising it up to the level of holiness. When we take time for Shabbat, we are separating out that time from the rest of the week and making it holy. In Judaism when two people get married, the ceremony is called kedoshim, which means a ceremony of holiness. We take that relationship and make it separate, different from all of our other relationships.
One morning during Torah study we talked about another part of this week’s parashah: God tells the Israelites not to follow the customs and ways of Egypt, where they have already been, and also forbids them to engage in the practices on the Land of Canaan, where they are heading. The Israelites are commanded to follow the ways of God rather than giving in to the trends and fads of the time and place in which they live.
Thinking about this a bit more, I think that the two commandments in this week’s reading are related. We are supposed to be holy, but sometimes we don’t know what that means. Our rabbis explained “you shall be holy” as “you shall be separated.” In order to find our holiness, we need to be able to disregard the trends and fashions of the time and stick to what we believe. 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 waste which it gathers in the rough-and-tumble of daily existence.
We are living in a time of crisis. People are suffering, people are scared, and no one knows exactly when things are going to change. While we do not live in Egypt or Canaan, there is one fad, one custom here in America (and yes, around the world as well) that I think we need to avoid: We live in a world with serious problems, and many of us have differing opinions on how to make the world a better place. We are not content to merely disagree with someone whose views oppose our own – it is not enough to differ; we also feel the need to disparage. Far too often on TV, in the newspaper, or on social media pages we see people engaging in character assassination. The opposing view is vilified, and those who are on the other side of a given issue are presented as existential threats to our way of life.
At times we hear even religious leaders use inflammatory rhetoric to describe their philosophical and political opponents. These members of the clergy will tell you that God and scripture are on their side and that anyone who deigns to disagree is a heretic or supports injustice. I would like to be crystal clear about something: if you look at the holy texts of Judaism, you will be able to find support for whatever argument you want to make on almost any contemporary issue.
Again, I am not a scholar of other religions, and so I cannot speak for them, but I can tell you that in Judaism we have so many opinions and so many texts with differing philosophies that you can make a strong scriptural argument for any approach for or against any issue. If anyone tells you that Judaism or the Torah say that we have to believe “x” about an issue, please know that there is support for the other side as well (if anyone has any questions concerning a specific issue, I’m more than happy to have a conversation about this).
The most important and unequivocal truth that the Torah tells us about politics is simple: the person at whom you’re screaming, the person whom you are defaming is created in the image of God.
If we want to be a Holy Nation, if we want to keep that commandment, then we have to avoid the traps and pitfalls of the society in which we live. We have to avoid the temptation to vilify those with whom we disagree, and we have to see the humanity in all of our neighbors. Then we can be truly emulate God and be holy because God, our creator and the creator of all humankind, is holy.