I don’t know about you, but I never have had any desire to be holy. You walk around seeing hassidic men in shtreimels avoiding all secular media or looking away from the women they come across, and agonizing over whether to do a mitzvah this way or that way… I suppose I appreciate their dedication, but it just doesn’t look like they are living life. What did I want out of this religious kick I’ve been on? Some wisdom, maybe an adult understanding of God, and perhaps some refinement of character. But Holiness? Give the robes and the long beards to someone else.
But then there’s the opening line of parshas Kedoshim:
Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. (Vayikra 19:1)
The parsha goes on to list several mitzvahs. Some obviously good: don’t lie, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, love your neighbor. Some good but a bit over the top: leave the corners of your fields for the poor, you have to pay your workers by the next day, you should fear (not just respect) your mother and father. Then there are mitzvahs that just seem over the top: don’t shave your beard, don’t wear clothes made of linen and wool, you must rebuke you friend, don’t get a tattoo, etc. For these it looks like the Torah is getting closer to the hassidim and away from the balanced religious life I was aiming for. But even if I did want to be holy, would these mitzvahs get me there?
Rabbi Noach Weinberg has a story that might shed some light on the issue.
One day a young man comes into the Rabbi’s office and says, “Rabbi, you know, I’ve been all over Israel and I’ve just not seen anything holy.” Rabbi Weinberg asks him, “Really? Have you been to the Kotel?”
“Yes, I’ve been to the Kotel.”
“Have you been to Safed? That place is very holy.”
“Yes, I’ve been to Safed. Didn’t see anything holy there.”
“Ah, well what about Masada?
“I’ve been to Masada too. Just didn’t feel it.”
Rabbi Weinberg thinks for a moment then says, “I’m sorry you didn’t see anything holy, but before you leave Israel… can I ask you… Have you seen any bafoofstiks?”
The young man, perplexed, responds, “What’s a bafoofstik?”
The Rabbi shoots back, “I didn’t ask you what a bafoofstik is, I asked you if you’ve seen one.”
The young man, frustrated then asks,”How am I supposed to tell you if I have seen a baffofstik if I don’t know what it is?”
To this Rabbi Weinberg responds,” And so you think you know what holiness is?”
As I’ve written before, the Hebrew word for holy is kadosh. Which literally means separate. But is that at all there is to it? Everyone’s parents has their fine set of china, that’s certainly special and separate. Technically a bathroom has a degree of holiness to it if we go by that definition. Are these mitzvahs in the Torah the only thing that makes the Jews a holy people because they separate?
The Ramban makes a point. Someone can do all the mitzvahs, eat perfectly kosher, make blessings with full intention, but then can go and be a complete glutton. He will have followed the Torah to the very letter of the law and missed the point entirely. From this we learn that holiness isn’t just about rules one follows, but the mindset with which one follows them.
If we look back the mitzvahs of this parsha, let’s note the middle ones I mentioned: paying your workers that day, leaving the corners of your field for the poor, etc. For these mitzvahs, we can see that they are good, but we could never imagine the government legislating them. It’s great if you want to put in the effort, but you can’t expect everyone do leave 10% of their wealth to the poor.
But that’s the key difference, the mindset. Being holy is about going above and beyond, going the extra mile, pushing yourself a little harder. You’ve probably heard the saying, “if you’re not growing, you’re falling.” We’d like to believe that once you reach a certain level, we can coast. But if you’ve ever been serious about working out, you know that when you started to decline is when you stopped pushing yourself. That’s the way we’re supposed to be about our character traits. Always pushing ourself harder. Always taking on a little more.
Separate in Practice, Separate in Appearance.
To take on mitzvahs that push you to grow is great. But why the mitzvahs that seem to have no practical application; the prohibition on shaving (with a blade), prohibition of tattoos, not mixing of clothing fibers. These separations seems trivial and only appear to divide us from the secular world in a superficial way. Why do we have to be separated that way?
1) They are choks. Choks are a classification of mitzvah where we have no understanding of why God gave them to us. We certainly want to understand a mitzvah and why we do it. Otherwise there is the feeling that we are sheep, mindlessly following orders that may be detrimental or dangerous. But to say we have have the ability to understand everything is a bit of a chutzpah. Any scientist will tell you that we will never come close to understanding the universe. And add to that our limited understanding of the heart of another person or the reach of our actions… means that putting our faith in something bigger than us is essential. Otherwise you’re basing your decisions on looking at life through a keyhole. If you’ve not come to a level of clarity of belief in God, this answer won’t help you. But once you know that God exists and is involved in your life, you don’t have to understand everything about His ways. You can’t.
2) Holiness as an identity. Yes you could reside within the world, trying to live with a high level of holiness and morals. And there is something to letting your actions speak for themselves. But dressing a certain way and carrying yourself with a bit of a uniform is a declaration of the commitment. It (should) do two things. It keeps you honest. I’ve only recently started wearing a kippah in public. When I do, it makes me feel like I have to live up to the identity of being Jewish. I swear less, I think twice before mouthing off to someone, I’m more likely to give tzedakah. The other thing it should do is highlight me to others. Let’s say I’m on a gluten free diet (I’m not saying gluten is bad, just using it as an example). I go to the store and with every item I pick up I have look for the gluten free symbol and if I don’t see that, I have to comb through the ingredients. But if the grocery store happens to have a gluten free section, I’m home free. I just grab and go.
That’s whats being kedosh, holy should be about. The focus shouldn’t be about growing payos (the sideburn curls) to glorify the mitzvah. It should be about pushing myself to grow in morals and spirituality and the payos should be a badge of that accomplishment. That way anyone looking in from the outside can instantly say, “Wow! Look at those curls, that must be a really moral and caring individual.”
So even though I have no designs to ever grow payos, wear the shtreimels, or ever stop watching secular TV, I’m completely happy to develop what it means to grow my character traits, my ability to connect with people, and even with God. And if the mitzvahs in this parsha will get me close to those things, I’ll give them a try. If that puts me on the path to being holy? So be it.