Parashat Aharei Mot/Q’doshim
The prophet Isaiah, transported in a vision to God’s palace, returned to earth and taught us the prayer of the heavenly angels, who declare: ”Holy, holy, holy is the Eternal One of Myriads; the fullness of the entire world is His Glory!” (Isa. 6:3)
The angels celebrate and emphasize God’s holiness by chanting it three times. But what is this holiness that inspires them so much? And what is the connection between the first part of their praise and the second part? The movement outward from God’s palace to “the fullness of the entire earth” seems to be connected to this quality of holiness. But how?
Many have read this angelic declaration as a statement of opposites. God’s holiness is expressed in God’s unknowable transcendence of everything material or anything humanly comprehensible. God is far away from us and ungraspable by human comprehension. On the other hand, says the second part of the verse, the whole world is full of God’s Glory. So God’s Presence is not alienated from us, but is all around us, everywhere.
However, there is another, more integrated reading possible. Our double Torah reading partakes of a movement similar to the one expressed by the angelic prayer heard by Isaiah. First we read of a ceremony that takes place in the innermost spaces of God’s sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies. But our second Torah portion calls all of us to be holy outside of the sacred space of the Temple. We are told that our everyday lives, enacted everywhere in this world, can attain the quality of holiness if we follow the Torah. Thus we learn that holiness is a continuous quality that spreads outward from the sacred space of the sanctuary and out into the everyday world.
This fits in with the definition of holiness that I try to repeat whenever I can, the definition offered by Rabbi Shimon Shkop, in the early 20th century:
“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.”
The essence of holiness is not retreat and transcendence, but it is a commitment to giving and generosity, to expansive concern for others. In this light, we may read the angelic proclamation as having one, continuous meaning. “Holy, holy, holy” means to say that God is giving, giving, giving. And that is why the entirety of the world is full of God’s Glory.
The Torah tells us that we have that very capacity for holiness – for thinking of others, for caring for others, for doing for others, ourselves. God’s holiness is already continuously manifest in God’s choice to turn outward, to others, to us. Our holiness awaits such expression. Its fulfillment awaits our choice.Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein
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image: “Volunteers at Food Not Bombs feed the homeless and needy near the downtown public library.” © Ahmed Haque altered and used with permission via Creative Commons License