Parashat Acharei Mot/Q’doshim
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
I am a person who feels that you can never tell a good joke too many times. I enjoy sharing a good joke again and again. And that is also the way I feel about sharing a good definition of holiness, the central concept that suffuses our Torah readings. But, before sharing that definition, which I have shared before, I share a couple of thoughts about the very juxtaposition of jokes and holiness.
I think we would agree that these two items are not usually thought of as being related. Our conceptions of holiness involve feelings of awe and reverence. But jokes tend to be irreverent. We associate holiness with people who are particularly devoted to difficult senses of mission. We don’t think of holy people as particularly funny (or as having a good sense of humor, even).
But these first impressions do not include some exceptions. Think of the many images of the Dalai Lama, smiling or laughing and with a twinkle in his eyes. There is, indeed, as concept of holy laughter. In this week in which we celebrated the birth of Israel, we should recall the Psalmist’s imaginings: “A song of going higher – When God returned us to Zion, we were like dreamers; then our mouths filled with laughter.” (Ps. 126:1-2) When we urge someone to “lighten up” we usually mean to say that they should not be so serious. But light is universally taken as a quality of holiness. So couldn’t we just as aptly use the term, “lighten up,” to encourage a person to strive for holiness in their lives?
The central injunction given to us by the Torah as a means of becoming holy is “love your fellow as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) While this mitzvah is often associated with the serious imperative to treat everyone justly and fairly, I think, if we would just lighten up a bit, we could just as correctly take it to include all interactions that involve sharing and caring and enjoying the bonds that exist between us. Like, for example, sharing a joke. And if we think of sharing as an essential component in the fullest enjoyment of jokes, perhaps we may appreciate the quality that both jokes and holiness share: the very importance of sharing itself.
So here is the definition of holiness that I love to share. It is from the early 20th century sage, Rabbi Shimon Shkop. His starting point is to try to understand how the Torah could compare our commandment to become holy with God’s own holiness. In what sense can both God and human beings share that quality? Whenever I consider this teaching I find myself smiling with joy, like when I remember a good joke:
“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 the blessed God. 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 has 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 God sustains the world, all God’s actions are dedicated to the good of that which is other than God’s Self. So it is the blessed Divine Will, that our actions should always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity and not merely to one’s own benefit.”
Rabbi David Greenstein
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