When one thinks about holiness, what usually comes to mind is the angelic realms or the High Priest performing the Temple service on Yom Kippur. Yet, the Kotzker Rebbe (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787-1859) emphasizes the phrase, “People of holiness shall you be” (Sh’mot/Exodus 22:30). In other words, holiness isn’t just for priests and angels. Within the context of our messy, error-prone human nature, we are coaxed to emulate our Creator. The commandment, “Kedoshim t’hiyu” (You shall be holy, Vayikra/Leviticus 19:1) wasn’t delivered via the standard channel of Moshe to Aharon and then to the elders, but from Moshe directly to the entire assembly. Holiness is for all of us: men, women and children; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. For those choosing to actively celebrate our heritage, aspiring to holiness is the first priority. We all have the ability to generate and sustain holiness in our lives, regardless of our circumstances or environment. The treasure of kedusha may be elusive, but it is attainable, and the spiritual realm can become as real as the physical.
The term kodesh (holy) implies separation and can be seen in the root of other words with the same integral meaning. Kaddish, for example, serves to divide our prayer services and Kedushin is the word for marriage, wherein two people separate themselves from all others. The first time holiness is mentioned in the Torah is right at the beginning, with the distinction of light from dark and the day of rest from the “profane” days of the week. We declare this primordial separation with the Kiddush (blessing over wine) on Shabbat and holidays. History demonstrates that when God’s beloved nation loses its holiness/separation, we quietly disappear into our host culture. That’s why the most stringent rules in Jewish law involve those activities subjecting us to the melting pot, namely “Eat Pray Love.”
The key to separation is abstention. According to our tradition, there are certain things we can and cannot do. Abstention may not sound so exciting but it leads to life’s greatest rewards. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) claims that a state of holiness results from avoiding the illicit sexual acts enumerated in the Kedoshim parasha (chapter). However, Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides, 1194-1270) argues that holiness is the result of abstaining from those things which are permitted to us. He points out one can keep kosher and still be a slovenly glutton. Holiness requires balance. Learn Torah, but don’t be a snob. Make a fortune, but give tzedakah (charity). We may be a separate nation that “dwells apart,” but we are loving and tolerant to all.
In the search for holiness, it’s tempting to go to extremes or attempt asceticism. Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, 1135-1204) explains that the key to joyful living is remaining integrated with one’s community and walking on the shvil hazahav (path of gold) or golden mean. An excellent example regarding the importance of maintaining balance can be found in the biblical laws of becoming a Nazir (one who feels the need to get super-religious for a period of time). One might think undertaking extra commandments is commendable, but remarkably, it can actually be deleterious: upon completion of the Nazirite period, the Nazir had to bring a sin offering to the Temple. Some assume spiritual growth engenders extremism. Rambam would argue that it is the ultimate self-help guide for balanced living.
When I got serious about my Judaism and initiated a sincere effort to strive for holiness, it led to nothing short of a Matrix-style “red pill” revelation. I entered a new realm, a powerful, palpable, parallel universe. A realm filled with joy and tranquility, even when everything seemed to be going crazy. Just like planets and atoms follow orbits, we, too, have a path. As Jews, we call our unique path halacha (the walk), the term used to describe Jewish law. From this perspective, law isn’t confining or strict. It’s liberating! Taking on halacha with intention, understanding and balance launches us on a trajectory where we soar with God. We learn to intuit heavenly messages. Human interaction becomes refined and enlightened. Prayer becomes a conduit to partnership and dialog. And when we walk with God, we can better perceive when we are off track, because we feel the disconnection in our bones.
King David summarizes the formula for entry into a holy space: “Sur meyrah v’ase tov” (Run from evil and do good, Psalm 34:15). That’s it. We must distance ourselves from negative commandments and actively do the positive ones. Part of running from evil requires understanding what is evil. Only then can we remain vigilant against the allure of the “dark side” and choose the highest good. Our job as Jews is to integrate these positive and negative commandments into our being. That way, in every situation, we are primed for optimal choices. According to Rabbi David Aaron, “We learn Torah to know what God wants, we pray to want what God wants and we do mitzvot to live what God wants.” Inculcating these divine distinctions allow us to fine tune our internal compass—clearing the muck that clouds the glass and resetting our magnetic north.
The biggest obstacle to attaining holiness is overcoming ourselves. Everyone has fears; everyone has excuses. I understand—been there, done that! Start with one mitzvah and make it your own. Eventually, that mitzvah will become part of your life. And what may seem like a simple act, actually creates an opening to kedusha.
One of my favorite Torah passages is, “It is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven…nor is it over the sea…rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 30:12-14) Our job is to study Judaism and open our spiritual channels to perceive the resulting holiness. Trust God to fill the vacuum.
Even the smallest step toward holiness impacts the individual, the Jewish People and the entire world. We are seeing the cumulative effect of millennia of mitzvot coming to fruition in our own times. Remarkable lifesaving technologies emanate from our Promised Land. The Internet has made Torah ubiquitous. Jewish Harvard professors teach the world about happiness. Hipster TV rabbis enlighten non-Jewish families about shalom bayit (peace in the home). Rock stars quote Kabbalah. Can the Messiah be far off?
Kedoshim t’hiyu—you shall be holy. That’s the mission statement. The rest is commentary.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. His 25 bestselling Jewish CDs include: The Songs We Sing, The Promise, Hineni, A Day in the Life, Across the River and Kol Bamidbar. He scores for film and TV in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and concertizes and teaches in over 50 cities each year. He was named one of the top ten American Jewish artists by Moment magazine, has sung The Star Spangled Banner at Dodger Stadium and Staples Center and has won John Lennon and Parent’s Choice awards. His comprehensive overview of spiritual living, The Joy of Judaism is a current bestseller on Amazon. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com.