Midrash Tanchuma Kedoshim: Psst, You’re holy and you didn’t even know it. 

The second verse of our Parsha lays out a simple request from G-d that seems esoteric and illusive:

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be (Kaddosh) holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am (Kaddosh) holy.”(Deuteronomy 19:2)

Midrash Tanchuma presents different perspectives providing a composite picture. Here are three:

There is a form of holiness that can only be achieved in the  future

Focusing on the words (“Kedoshim Tehiyu”)  “You will (in the future) become holy,” one approach in the Midrash is that this rallying cry will only come to fruition in Messianic times. To achieve this level of holiness, there needs to be a final reckoning. All nations must be judged for their injustices, particularly against the Jews. Furthermore all nations must feel that the judgment was fair and just, Only then can the Jewish People reach a higher state of holiness through the universal recognition of G-d.  Even more surprising, G-d has chosen to set up the world such that only in Messianic times can He reach a more exalted state of holiness. G-d will be more holy when the Jewish People are more holy. 

Holiness can be achieved twice a day

The Midrash offers a very different perspective on holiness. It is literally out of this world  because it is based on the behavior of angels. 

First the ground rules: 

  • A basic building block of our daily prayer is the “Shema.” It is a biblical obligation to recite the “Shema” twice a day. 
  • The “Shema” has 248 words which correspond to the 248 organs in the human body. Reciting the Shema with great care and concentration brings protection to each and every one of our organs. 
  • Angels in heaven are praising G-d with the flutter of their wings.
  • When we praise G-d, by reciting the “Shema,” the angels stop praising G-d and stand still. They listen attentively to every word we say.

It seems that when Moses was on one of his sojourns in heaven with G-d he overheard the angels using a particular praise of G-d consisting of 6 words” “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto Leolam Vaed.” Moses brought this phrase down for the Jewish People to use in prayer. In fact, we insert it, in a whisper, right between the first verse of “Shema Yisrael” and the next verse “V’ahavta et...”

The protective power of the Shema

The Midrash provides an analogy to explain how the recitation of the “Shema” creates a  symbiotic relationship with G-d:

“Rabbi Shimon the son of Chalifta said: To what can this (the relationship of G-d and the Jewish People reciting the “Shema”) be compared? To a man (who lived) in the Galilee (in the North) who had a vineyard (in his territory of) Judah. While a man (who lived in  Judah had a vineyard in (the territory of) the Galilee.”

The two farmers realized that they could avoid a long trek to work if each took care of each other’s vineyard.

The Midrash uses the word (T’chum) territory which is a play on words. Beyond the meaning of territory (T’chum) connotes a realm of existence as well as an area of responsibility. 

In effect, G-d is saying that we become (Kadosh) holy by reciting the “Shema”  and living by the ideals expressed therein.  In doing so,  G-d will take care of the realm which He reigns – running the world and taking care of our needs. Our well being (248 organs) is symbolized by the 248 words in the “Shema.”

Holiness can be achieved every moment of every day

The previous dimension of holiness related to the world of angels. This one comes from the world of spirits. It’s a story of 2 spirits that live on Earth and there is a life or death confrontation between them. 

First the Midrash provides a verse which will be the key to unlock the story: 

King David said in Psalms (20:3)  “May G-d send you help from the sanctuary (Kodesh)” which means that holiness is achieved through your actions. “and sustain you from Zion” meaning that the more wholesome and excellent (metsuyan) your actions, the more divine assistance you will merit.”’

The story begins with a spirit, (let’s call it the benign spirit) who, by its nature did no harm to anyone nor did it help anyone. It simply hovered on top of a spring of water.  We are told that this spirit was threatened by an evil spirit which did have a purpose in life – namely, to harm Human beings. So the benign spirit approached a certain pious Jew named Yossi for help. The benign spirit explained to Yossi that it never harmed anyone in its life. But the evil spirit that sought to force him out of the place where it dwelled posed a threat to people. Yossi indeed helped the benign spirit destroy the evil spirit. 

When the Rabbis heard the story they saw in it a profound lesson for man’s potential to reach holiness. They said that this benign spirit who “was created to be self sufficient.” Meaning that it had no motivation to help another creature nor the need to receive assistance. Yet, when it’s life was threatened, it figured out that the only way to survive was to seek assistance from a human being. Furthermore, the only way to enlist this man’s assistance was to do something against its nature – to provide the man assistance by alerting him of the impending danger of this predatory spirit.

“So how much more so should people” strive to help each other. After all, unlike the spirit, we were created as social beings who depend on one another. As such we can reach the exalted status of  “You shall be (Kaddosh) holy”  – achieving holines through the sanctity our deeds and therby being worthy of drawing from G-d’s holiness. 

Which of the three approaches is true?

Is holiness something so lofty that it can only be achieved in Messianic times? Is it something we can achieve through prayer? Or does it simply take mankind to recognize that this is our natural state? Our purpose in this world.

The Midrash seems to feel that all 3 are true. Unfortunately, the history of the world seems to point to a great irony. The lesson that this benign spirit learned the hard way, mankind has still not figured out.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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