How come we often use the word “holy” in such unholy ways? Why should this term denoting sanctity or piety or godly come to be part of exclamations and even, pardon me, expletives? I saw one explanation that pairing “holy” with profane ideas somehow intensifies its impact. To stress our point we break taboos. I find this idea somehow both satisfying and disturbing. It’s clear that the term “holy” carries a lot of power. It both inspires and troubles the listener. OK, so we can see how the word can be used in provocative ways to jar the audience, but what does the word mean in its purest sense? Lo and behold, this is the perfect time of year to explore that question, because together with last week’s Torah reading, which featured the words “Be holy, because, I, the Lord, your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:2),” and contained the following injunction: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the Lord, your God...I am the Lord, Who sanctifies you. (20:7-8),” our section of Leviticus is so very much about “holiness.” This topic continues this week with the famous dictum: “And they shall not desecrate the holy things of the Children of Israel, those that they have set aside for the Lord (22:15).”
The simplest reading of these texts is that we should be “holy” as an act of emulating our Creator, imitatio Dei. When we attempt to mimic the acts and behavior patterns of God, we achieve a certain holiness. For that reason, all of the quoted verses demand that we be holy because God is holy. That’s cool, but not totally satisfying because we associate being “holy” with behavior that is distinctly un-godly, like sexual mores or eating habits. So, Rashi last week commented: For wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness (quoting Vayikra Raba 24:4). Rashi pushes an agenda that holiness is connected to controlling certain strong human urges. And this week, holiness is associated with, first, the kohanim, then places like the Sanctuary, and then in Chapter 23, also called parshat hamoadim (section of holidays), with times. How do times and places behave like God?
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik weighed in on this topic a number of times in his many writings, and presented an inspiring yet provocative approach. He defined sanctity as “the mere attributes of kadosh, kadosh, kadosh denote distance, separation and distinction” (“Out of the Whirlwind,” p. 143) and as “the mysterium magnum, ineffable and unattainable, awesome and holy” (“Worship of the Heart,” p. 67). In other words, holiness is connection to something so beyond us that it is a mystery beyond our feeble powers of intellect to comprehend. So, where does this baffling stuff come from? How does it enter our mundane realm? Here comes the most difficult, yet elegant, part of the Rav’s position. It comes from us. “Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood. Through the power of our mouths, through verbal sanctification alone, we can create holy offerings of the Temple treasury and holy offerings for the Altar. The Land of Israel became holy through conquest, Jerusalem and the Temple courts—through bringing offerings” (“Halachic Man,” p. 47). This holiness starts as a deep mystery, but as we create it, we begin to feel a closeness to God. We are imitating the Divine ways and soon we no longer want to flee God’s presence; we become God’s intimates. Eventually, mankind “tries to imitate God, walk in His way and participate in His caritas (kindness and love).”
That’s cool; holiness is connected to our tzelem Elokim (Divine image) which, as given by God, defines our humanity and our relationship with God, but the concept I find the most fascinating is a novel idea from the Gerer Rebbe in his commentary, Sfat Emet. When discussing kedoshim tihiyu (“Be holy”), the Midrash quotes a well known verse from Psalms: “May He send your aid from His sanctuary, and may He support you from Zion” (Psalms 20:3). So the verse seems to state that sanctity comes from the Temple in Zion. Originally, the term Zion meant a specific place or building in Jerusalem, then came to mean all of Jerusalem and, eventually in the fifth century BCE, referred to all of Israel. But I digress. The Midrash explains this to mean the sanctification of our deeds and the zionification of our actions. What’s that last idea? How do we zionify deeds? The Rebbe explains that this word “mitzion” in the Psalm refers to this verse in Jeremiah: “Set up road markers for yourself; establish signposts!” (31:20). The word for road signs is tziyunim. One possible interpretation for the word tziyon is that it means clearly marked or outstanding. Often, grave markers are called tziyunim, for they identify the space above the body. So, mitzvot are tziyunim of a deeper reality hidden behind them. We bring sanctity into this world from the heavenly realm by these entry ports marked “mitzvot.”
So, too, the word Zion implies that Jerusalem and the Temple were markers of where the Divine power entered our realm. The holiness in our world enters through assigned portals. The Gerer Rebbe stresses that mitzvot also achieve this purpose. According to the Rebbe, humans don’t create the Holiness, instead we usher it into this physical universe.
Whether we accept the Rav, who said that humanity creates kedusha, or the Rebbe, who said that we control the flow of kedusha, the importance of Jerusalem is huge. It makes no difference whether the kedusha is manufactured or uncovered, its address is still Jerusalem. During these days between Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, it’s important to contemplate and communicate the role of Jerusalem in our world. Let’s not be like those who denigrate or defile the importance of sanctity in our world through profane expressions. Let’s, instead, pray for the wellbeing of Jerusalem and us all. The two are intertwined.
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk is a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s Education Director. He is a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivot Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.