Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
Our Torah portion begins with one of the most sublime pronouncements of all: “Speak to the entire congregation of the Children of Israel and say to them: “You shall be holy for Holy am I, the Eternal, your Almighty.” (Lev. 19:2)
Throughout the generations we have drawn inspiration and motivation, mixed with a feeling of trepidation, from this commandment to be holy, linked as it is to the notion that our holiness in some way echoes God‟s holiness. How can we imagine that linkage? Furthermore, how does that linkage inform our concept of what holiness entails?
For me, the most profound and rich teaching on this question was offered by a great Talmudic scholar of the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Shimon Shkop. In his teaching he has the insight and courage to take on centuries of commonly held definitions of holiness and reframe them in a new way.
The common understanding of holiness emphasizes its special separateness. To make something holy is to take it away from the mundane and dedicate it to God. Holy people live a life apart from society. They abstain from common activities and enjoyments. Prevalent images include hermits and monks. In Jewish tradition we have the nazirite. But Rabbi Shimon argues that to define holiness in this way is to mistake certain possible symptoms of holiness for the essence of holiness itself. We must seek the definition of holiness in some aspect of God that we may share and emulate. It is not part of our image of God‟s holiness that God engages in abstinence or avoidance of temptation. There must be something else. He writes:
“If we say that the essential meaning of holiness that God demands of us in this commandment of ‘You shall be holy [for I, God your Almighty, am Holy]‟ (Lev. 19:2) is to distance ourselves from permitted enjoyments (motarot), such holiness has no relationship at all with God, may He be blessed. Therefore it appears, in my humble opinion, that within this commandment is included the very basis and root of the purposeful goal of our lives, which is that all our service and toil should always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity (le-tovat ha-klal), that we not avail ourselves of any act or motion, benefit or enjoyment unless it have some aspect that is for the good of those other than ourselves (le-tovat zulatenu). . . . In this manner the notion of this holiness does imitate the holiness of the Blessed Creator to a small degree. For as with the act of the Holy Blessed One in the entire Creation, as well as in each and every second that He sustains the world, all His actions are dedicated to the good of that which is other than Himself, so it is His will, may He be blessed, that our actions should always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity and not to one‟s own benefit.”
Rabbi Shimon teaches that we should not mistake selflessness with self-abnegation. Such preoccupations with self-restraint can be just as selfish as over-indulgence. We should not mistake holiness for smallness of spirit. Holiness is the overflow of one‟s concern outward, toward the embrace and sustenance of the world for the sake of us all. If we define holiness for ourselves in this way we may attain a small measure of God‟s essential holiness, expressed in God‟s great act of generosity in creating and sustaining this world of ours.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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