May 5, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
With the advent of the internet and its daily overdose of information, nowadays you can learn how to do almost anything just from watching a YouTube video.
Want to know how to erect a barbed wire fence? Watch a YouTube video. Need to build your own septic system? Watch a YouTube video. Trying to learn to dance the skanky leg? Watch a YouTube video. Have to make baked Alaska? Watch a YouTube video. Wish to sing opera? Watch a YouTube video. Seek to pilot a jet airplane? Watch a YouTube video. Have to deliver a baby in the back seat of an Uber ride? You got it: watch a YouTube video.
If only United Airlines had watched a YouTube video on how to treat customers when you oversell a commercial airline flight…
But for one thing there is, as yet, no YouTube video available. I know this because I looked for it this week. There is no YouTube video for the commandment given at the very beginning of Kedoshim.
Our second Torah portion this week begins memorably: “You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy. Kedoshim tih’yu, ki kadosh Adonai Eloheichem…”
But what does it mean to be holy? And how are we to go about being it?
Frankly, that’s a good question, especially today.
There are YouTube videos on how to light Shabbat candles, how to lead a Passover seder, how to sing the blessing for the Omer, and even on how to chant Torah. But there is no YouTube video that can teach you how to “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”
And so we 21st century Jews need to try to figure this out for ourselves.
The first issue that arises is just who it is that gets to make things holy. The obvious answer is that it is God who does so, for God is holy; as the prophet Isaiah said in a passage we sing every Shabbat and weekday morning in the Kedushah, the prayer of sanctification, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.” But since we are not privileged to have God around pointing out what it is that we are supposed to personally do to be holy, we need to rely on our own devices to determine what in our own lives is truly sacred.
In general, even in this secular age, we think that some things are intrinsically holy, that certain objects or people or places are especially imbued with the quality of sacredness. I have journeyed literally around the world in search of holiness, seeking places of sacredness on six of the seven continents. I have climbed many a sacred mountain, bathed in holy waters, explored sanctified caves, toured wonderful churches, mosques, temples, stupas, shrines, and great ruins of the highest holiness. All have been, and mostly still are, considered to be deeply sacred, exalted, exceptionally special. Many have been sacred to a series of different religions and observant people over the centuries and millennia, changing hands and gods but always retaining the aura of holiness.
So God is holy. And certain specific places are especially filled with God’s holiness. We have solved it!
Only not so fast. At least not for Jews. You see, the Hebrew word for holiness, kadosh, comes from the word hekdesh, something set apart. That is, in our own tradition, there is nothing intrinsically holy about holy things. We simply set apart ordinary objects and so touch them with sanctity. Kadosh, sacred or holy, comes from a root word that simply means “set-aside” or “distinct.” In Biblical Hebrew, hekdeish was the part of the produce of the land reserved for the use of the priests in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Hekdesh was grain, mostly, like the barley of our Omer offering in this period of the year, but it might be cattle or sheep or chickens or vegetables or fruit or oil or wine or any other natural product that has been officially dedicated for the sole use of the priests, either Levites or Kohanim, the regular or higher priests, and for the support of the Temple.
The produce itself—the wheat or dove or grapes or ram—was actually identical to the rest of the produce of the field or farm or vineyard or herd that it came from. It wasn’t intrinsically sacred. It was just regular old stuff until the person giving it decided that this portion of his or her work was going to be given to the Temple and the priests. It was the gift of giving it for the purpose of creating holiness that actually made it holy. In fact, you could sell the produce and give money instead and it was still hekdesh, still kadosh, still sacred.
The magic, the spirituality, the sacredness, was not in the item—or even in the place—but in the way that the individual person worked to create holiness, the ways in which he or she deliberately solicited sanctity.
Holiness in Judaism was, from the beginning, a shared process, a covenant we have with God to make things, and people, holier. I’ll give you a little example, one of my favorites. Is a sheepskin holy? Well, no, not in and of itself. You can make a coat out of it—particularly if you are an Australian—and use it to keep warm in winter. If you are from California, as I am, then you know that the proper use of sheepskins is as seat covers for Mustang convertibles. They keep the seat cool and protect the leather or vinyl. Nothing holy there.
So a sheepskin is not a particularly holy object. But if you take that same sheepskin and clean the wool off of it, and properly scrape it, pretty soon you have parchment. And if you take that parchment, and using special ink you reverently write upon it the words of the Torah, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, and if you take that sheepskin and roll it on two wooden handles, and cover it over with a special garment, a kind of ephod, pretty soon you have a Torah. And now every Jew will agree—and it’s very hard to get every Jew to agree to anything—every Jew will agree that the sheepskin has somehow become a Torah, and now it is clearly holy.
And of course in this season of graduations you can use sheepskins for diplomas, which are holy in their own right.
In general, you see, the creation of holiness is a partnership, a kind of joint project, between human beings and God. While God provides the inspiration, the ideal of holiness and perfection, we are the ones who choose to imbue certain objects, like Torahs, with holiness. And we are also the ones who help to choose the people who will become holy.
Tonight we are celebrating New Member Shabbat, formally welcoming those of you who have chosen to become part of what is generally called a Kehilah kedoshah, a holy congregation. It is a holy congregation because we join together in this beautiful sanctuary for prayer, and to hear Torah and Bible, and to do festival observances, and we sing sacred music and seek to elevate our spirits. It is a holy congregation because we study Torah and become bar and bat mitzvah and are confirmed and grow in the depth and breadth of our learning. It is a holy congregation because we educate and inspire our children here. It is a holy congregation because we visit the sick, and comfort the bereaved, and wash the dead, and celebrate with brides and grooms and new parents and grandparents. It is a holy congregation because we help the homeless and the hungry, counsel the confused and wounded, welcome the stranger and the refugee, lead the community in addressing its issues.
But it is mostly—perhaps completely—a holy congregation because you make it so. It is your participation and partnership in this covenantal relationship with God and Temple Emanu-El that make this extraordinary place truly holy. It is your contributions of talent and energy, of spirit and, yes, tangible gifts that create our holy home here, our sacred place and sanctified community.
It is you who help to fulfill the commandment, the mitzvah of Kedoshim.
On this Shabbat, may you be inspired to deepen your shared work of covenant. May you try to create even more holiness here.
And then we all will be able to affirm that we have managed to be holy… as God is holy. In our own Temple, through our own work.
Ken Yehi Ratson.