Lazer Gurkow

Removed the Holy

In ancient Jerusalem, Jews would go the Temple every three years and proclaim, “I have removed the holy [portion] from my home.” What does it mean to remove the holy portion from the house?

Here is the background. Every year, the field owner would give a portion of his crop to the kohen (priest), a portion to the Levite, and a portion was set aside to be consumed in Jerusalem. Every three years this third portion was given to the poor. After three years, the field owner would proclaim before G-d, “I have removed the holy [portion] from my home, and I gave it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.”

When we explain it that way, it makes more sense. Still, when we take the words, “I have removed the holy from my home,” in isolation it certainly raises eyebrows. The beautiful thing about the Torah is that every stitch of every verse contains a powerful lesson, but it is hard to understand what is so good about saying, “I removed the holy from my home?”

If there were unholy energy in my home, such as resentment, anger, jealousy, or depression, I would want to remove it. But why would I want to remove holy energy from my home? What’s wrong with holy energy?

Masquerading Religion
Before I answer this question, I hasten to point out that sometimes unholiness can masquerade as holy. It is not uncommon for people to wrap their unhealthy dispositions in religious bunting.

For example, if someone with OCD is meticulous about every word in prayer and prays for five hours each day, we don’t want to celebrate that. We want to recognize that this is an illness rather than piety. It is easy to miss it and we want to be alert to it. If someone with a temper disguises his defect as piety and responds angrily every time someone commits a minor religious infraction, we must identify it as problematic, not celebrate it as righteous. A righteous person is marked by patience and humility. There is no room for genuine anger and temper in religion.

If I identify unholiness masquerading as holy, I want to be able to say that I removed the holy from my home. But having said that, I will point out that this can’t possibly serve as the lesson from the isolated stitch in our passage. Because if this were the lesson here, the wording should have been, “I have removed the unholy.” The Torah of truth would not label the masquerading unholy as holy.

Clearly, the Torah wants us to learn a lesson from these words that speaks directly to removing holiness from our homes.  Again, I grant that I have taken these words entirely out of context when I seek to learn a lesson from this isolated stitch. But I do believe that every word in the Torah is instructive and if the Torah gives us this stitch, there should be something to learn from it.

With Heart
They tell a story about Rabbi Shne’ur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement. One day, he visited a synagogue where Jews prayed with concentration and zest. When he left, he observed, “there is not a single word of holiness in that synagogue.” At a later date, he visited a synagogue, where people were praying by rote and were clearly lackluster. As he left, he observed, “This synagogue is filled with words of holiness.”

His students were surprised by his observations, so he explained. The Zohar teaches that our good deeds and words of prayer, are like birds, and our love and fear of G-d are like wings. A bird without wings cannot fly so it remains stranded on earth. Similarly, words of prayer and good deeds that are not accompanied by love and fear of G-d, remain trapped on earth, and cannot ascend.

Think about it. If you are reading a book and your spouse asks, “do you love me,” and you mumble distractedly, “yes I love you,” your words won’t enter your spouse’s heart. But if you approach your spouse with a special gift, light romantic candles, turn on the music, hand over the gift, look deeply into your spouse’s eyes and say, “I love you,” Your words will have come from your heart and will enter the heart of your spouse.

Words said with passion and deeds performed with passion are alive. They are filled with vitality and they can make you fly. They are the wings to your bird. But if they are performed perfunctorily and by rote, they lack energy and go nowhere. They don’t uplift; they accomplish nothing.

The people who prayed with passion, did not leave their words in the synagogue. Every word was like a living breathing energy that ascended, and that lifted them, directly to G-d. Thus, their synagogue was devoid of holy words. All the holiness of their prayers escaped the mortal coil and ascended to G-d. The people who prayed lackadaisically left their prayers behind. Those prayers were like birds without wings and could not rise. They remained stranded on earth; thus, the synagogue was filled with prayer.

I Removed The Holy
I suggest that when the Jew stood before G-d and announced that he gave all the gifts to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, he proclaimed that he gave these gifts with empathy and passion. He did not give it out of habit, nor did he give it out of duty. He did not give it by rote, nor did he give it by force. He gave it because he was excited to help the poor and to fulfill G-d’s commandment.

This good deed did not remain trapped in his home. It went straight to heaven. I removed the holy from my home. I did not feed the poor to make me feel good. I did not feed the poor so that others would respect me. I did not feed the poor so that they would be grateful to me. I left nothing behind, I kept nothing back, I reserved nothing for myself. I did it with a full heart. I didn’t do it for me, dear G-d. I did it for the poor and I did it for you. I removed the holy from my home. It gave it all to you.

In the month of Elul, we need to ask ourselves a similar question. Do we do our Mitzvot with a full heart or do we hold something back? Do we pray to G-d with passion and excitement, or is there a little bit of rote and duty, mixed in? Do we give to others altruistically or do we have other agendas even if it is the secret agenda of feeling good about ourselves? Is the holiness of our mitzvah trapped in our home or have we removed the holy from our home? Is it trapped in our hearts or has it lifted us up?

Serving G-d with a sincere heart is a tall order, but we must start somewhere. Let’s not shy away from asking the question just because we are intimidated by the answer. Let’s begin the journey and at least ask the question.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at