By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
What do you think of when you hear the word “Holy?”
Do you think of God or a power greater than yourself? Do you visualize an ethereal being that is beyond human, maybe in angelic form? Or perhaps a human being who is righteous and devotes his or her life to serving others? Maybe you think of the Torah — our people’s most holy possession — or sacred occasions such as Shabbat, Passover, or the High Holy Days.
In the Book of Leviticus, there is a section known as the “Holiness Code.” Rather than unattainable guidelines, it contains fairly mundane and even predictable laws that address aspects of ordinary life, including ritual, ethics, how to treat the poor and afflicted, family relations and morality. Some examples of the mitzvot included in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 may sound very familiar, as they are also included in the Aseret HaDibrot (“The Ten Commandments”):
“Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves. I am the Lord your God.”
“Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.”
“Do not go about spreading slander among your people.”
“Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly.”
“You shall not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God; I am the Lord.”
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.”
These words are not directed to a select elite group of people; they are directed to all of the Israelites. The Torah reads, “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” In other words, we can all live lives of holiness.
In Genesis, it is written that “God created man in His own image,” not because the God we worship exists in human form, but because holiness is striving to embody qualities that we want God to show us: mercy, compassion, kindness, love. Showing these qualities to other beings that share our planet is living a life that God intended us to live, a life of holiness. This is how God told us we must live in society. Without it, we would be reduced to living in chaos.
In a famous Talmudic story, a non-Jew told Rabbi Hillel that he would convert to the Jewish faith if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel gently responded, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” Rabbi Hillel drew this teaching from a well-known passage from the Holiness code in Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Today, our society is filled with interpersonal, racial, cultural, and political tensions. By embracing and sharing holiness in our everyday behavior and interactions, each of us can help alleviate some of those tensions and bring a little more peace and harmony into our world. Holiness is the essence of God; we can strive to make it our own essence as well. By inviting holiness into our own lives, we may feel an inner peace that might otherwise elude us. We have the opportunity to choose holiness … every single day.