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Holiness is Right Here

10/05/2022 09:25:18 AM


Guest Rabbi Rebecca Jacob

Holiness is Right Here, Right Now – Yom Kippur Morning 5783

Holy is your name, holy is your work, holy are the days that return to you. Holy are the years that you uncover. Holy are the hands that are raised to you, and the weeping that is wept to you. Holy is the fire between your will and ours, in which we are refined. Holy is that which is unredeemed, covered with your patience. Holy are the souls lost in your unnaming, Holy and shining with great light, is every living thing, established in this world and covered with time, until your name is praised forever.

But that I could write like Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), whose stirring words on holiness are so fitting for Yom Kippur. Cohen understands that holiness begins and ends with the One. In between is the holiness of human struggle and shining with light, every living thing – past, present, and future – in relationship with God. His vivid description shows holiness existing actively in words, actions, time, and space.

The repetition of the word 'holy' multiple times may remind us of the Kedushah in the repetition of the Amidah when we rise on our toes three times as we say, Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (Holy, holy, holy), imitating the angels praising God (Isaiah 6:3).

As a midrashist (interpreter of biblical text), it may also be Cohen’s expansive understanding of a verse from Leviticus, which we will read this afternoon during the Mincha service: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:2)

It would seem that this is a straightforward positive commandment and one that we would certainly expect to find among the rabbis' list of the 613 biblical mitzvot. Major spoiler alert: None of the most significant codifiers includes You shall be holy as a commandment they tell us to follow!

The classical explanation for this omission is that becoming holy is our lives' over-arching and all-encompassing goal; therefore, You shall be holy is on a different plane than the statutes comprising the 613 behavioral mitzvot.

In Everyday Holiness, his first book on Mussar practice – an ethics-centered spiritual path, Alan Morinis suggests an alternate explanation: You shall be holy is aimed directly to our souls. It is advice helping us understand the impulse we already feel within ourselves, our inner drive to make something better of our lives not through material changes or gains but spiritual improvement.1
The words kedoshim tihyu, translated as You shall be holy, are in the plural form, underscoring the inclusiveness of the words kol adat b'nai Yisrael – "the whole Israelite community" – in the first phrase. Becoming holy is the responsibility of every individual, and we are each to take to heart the Torah's good counsel.

How do we do this – become holy? I have quite a few thoughts about the importance of simple, concrete acts of everyday living informed by Jewish ethics – things like loving your neighbor, protecting the vulnerable, and caring for the earth and all its inhabitants. I cannot tell you from experience what it is like to be a holy person because I'm not there yet.

With some confidence, I can say a few things about how to prepare: Recognize that you are unique, not alone. You shall be holy sets the same goal of spiritual growth and refinement for all of us. Each of us will follow a different path because each person is unique.

Accept that we can be compassionate based on our own feelings, identification with the oppressed and vulnerable, or because we have internalized good training in values. Similarly, we may be just, pure, powerful, or righteous. But we cannot be holy except in relation to God, Who is the only Source of holiness. In Judaism, God designates what is holy – Israel, the Torah, Shabbat, for example – not us.2

Know that religious piety, whether in ritual observance or tikkun olam, and Torah learning are insufficient, especially when they are performative. Ibn Ezra's commentary uv'levavechah la'asoto (in your heart, do it) in Deuteronomy 30:14 is instructive here: The essence of all mitzvot is in the heart. Some require the use of our mouths, and these have the purpose of strengthening the heart. Others are actions. When we speak about them, we draw from that strength.

Understand that you need the will to be on your spiritual growth path. This is not something we can do passively or that anyone else can force on us. In his commentary on the words in your heart, do it, the Emek HaDavar puts it this way: Without the heart's desire, singing all day cannot arise, whereas mindfulness (literally, "a raising of the heart") arouses holiness as an intense love.

Addressing the Jewish community worldwide, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker wrote recently:

When I was being held hostage on January 15th, I didn't know about all of the vigils and all of the love, and all of the fear. I didn't know until after we escaped that y'all were with us. So many of you were with us that day in Colleyville — waiting, hoping, praying, and ultimately rejoicing that we made it out alive.

Kol adat b'nai Yisrael – "the whole Israelite community."
Rabbi Cytron-Walker goes on to say:

Our rabbis teach: "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bah zeh," that all Jews are responsible for one another. The outpouring of emotion that you shared during our ordeal and in the aftermath …overwhelmed us in the best of ways. I was eternally grateful for all the support and thought a lot about how it would feel to go through something like that and be met with silence. What if our world was shattered and no one cared?

No one should ever have to feel that way. Being responsible for each other means that when we're a part of a Jewish community that we never have to question whether we belong. Within our fractured communities, we often fall short of this ideal.
It's a time for change. We seek healing in our lives and healing for our communities. Start with being responsible for each other. Live this value. We need you! 3

Kedoshim tihyu, You shall be holy.

I will have more to say about holiness in the here and now when we reach the part of the Musaf service that traditionally serves as a symbolic reenactment of the atonement ritual performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, which we read earlier in the Torah.

1 Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness, p. 13.
2 Arthur Green, These are the Words, pp. 129-130.
3 Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, "What if our world was shattered and no one cared?"

Thu, June 1 2023 12 Sivan 5783