What does it mean to be holy? How do we lead holy lives?
As a teacher, I think often about this question and about how to guide students in concretizing its answer.
But so do all of us, I guess. We think about how to bring holiness and meaning into our lives, in one way or another. We think about what God wants from us when He tells us to be holy (Leviticus 19:2). We think about how to convey holiness to our children.
We wonder if being holy means living more ascetic lives. If we are supposed to deprive ourselves of the pleasures of this world so that somehow, we can draw closer to the non-physical part of ourselves and to God Himself. Perhaps we can experience our souls more if we try to deny that we have bodies.
Philosophies abound that tell us this is so. That someone who truly wants to be spiritual, to be close to God, must rise above the concrete boundaries and physical needs of this world in order to reach transcendent heights.
Perhaps we can be angels.
Or perhaps not.
Rav Yehuda Amital was fond of paraphrasing the Kotzker Rebbe’s remark about the verse, “People of holiness shall you be to Me.” (Exodus 22:30). “God has plenty of angels,” Rav Amital would say. “He does not want us to be angels. He wants us to be people. The Torah does not want us to suppress our feelings and instincts but rather to serve God from the feelings that are natural to us.”
We are human. And we should not deny it, even if we are sometimes asked to overcome our most human instincts.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once commented that there are religious philosophies that believe that a person asked by God to sacrifice his son, as Abraham was, should be able to comply and respond as easily as if he were asked to slaughter a chicken.
Rav Lichtenstein said: “I do not see this as an ideal. I do not yearn for my children to be like this; not for my students to be like this, not for my neighbors to be like this, and not for the Jewish nation to be like this. Moreover, I do not see in this greatness. Were I to believe that our forefather Abraham related to the Akedah as if he were slaughtering a chicken, I would not revere him more. I would revere him less. This we don’t need — we have many people that can slaughter [a chicken].”
In a few days, we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot and commemorate the day that God gave His Torah to the Children of Israel.
The Talmud in Pesachim (68b) tells us that on Shavuot, unlike other holidays, there is total agreement that the character of the day must be “chatzi lachem” — “half for you.” That, as opposed to purely spiritual pursuits such as prayer or Torah study, half of the day must be spent engaging in the very human activities of eating and drinking.
The Beit Ha-Levi (Exodus 19:5) explains that on the day the Torah was given to people on Earth, we must celebrate by acknowledging that the purpose of the Torah is for us to sanctify our uniquely human existence. Our Sages tell us that when the angels protested that the Torah is too holy for mere flesh-and-blood (Shabbat 88b), Moses responded that its laws do not relate to them. They were meant for us.
We are human. Yet, as humans, we can be holy.
As humans, holiness is found not in denying our corporality, but in channeling it towards a higher purpose. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “The miraculous metamorphosis which the body undergoes in its ascent from blind compliance with mechanical instincts to purposeful selective conduct is the fount out of which kedusha (holiness) uninterruptedly streams” (Family Redeemed, p. 75).
As humans, we achieve holiness in this world when we allow God’s laws and presence to dwell in the midst of our concrete and physical lives.
We take alcohol, make kiddush on it and use it to sanctify Shabbat. We make blessings over our food before and after we consume it. We use our sexual drive as a way to build a powerful intimate relationship with a spouse. We invest in communities and friendships that help us become the best we can be. We engage with the best that this world has to offer us but fill it with religious meaning that penetrates every part of our human experience.
If we were angels, we would have no free will. No opportunity to choose to make God part of our lives; and in that choice is holiness found.
Furthermore, when it comes to educating our children, we need to not only affirm our collective humanity, I believe, but also celebrate our individual human identities, in all of their uniqueness. We should encourage our children not to erase their personalities, but to refine and channel them; not to deny their intuitions, but to be ready to suspend them.
We need to educate our children that the human and deeply personal emotions, tensions and challenges that they sometimes struggle with are part of what it means to be a holy person; and that the Torah, as a blueprint for holiness, is speaking to them, in all of their human complexities. We need to help our students and children find their places in Torah, in a way that celebrates who they are and what Torah can mean to each of them.
This message has particular resonance for me as an educator of young women who strive to walk a spiritual path in this physical world and are continually looking for their part in Torah. It is critical to me that they understand that God’s Torah was meant for them, their realities and the situations that they specifically encounter. I think about ways in which to share God’s Torah and relay His directives through a human voice that can resonate specifically with women and inspire them to live exalted lives, such as through Deracheha, a new halacha-education website on which I’ve been working.
On Shavuot, we celebrate the “descent” of God and His Torah into our very human reality. Holiness does not belong to the realm of the heavens. The goal is not for humans to become angels, but for them to find the path of Torah — our paths in Torah — right down here:
“דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום”
“Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17)