Shabbat Kedoshim: What Does It Mean to Be Holy In This World?

On this particular week in the 21st century, from the perspective of the east side of Portland Oregon in the U.S. in the western hemisphere of planet Earth, a small planet in a mid-sized galaxy in a Universe beyond our understanding, much has occurred. So much that is beyond our ability to embrace with our brains, useful as they are; so much that causes the heart to gasp.

I have long believed that the answer to distress is to immerse oneself in Torah, in a communal learning setting; one may approach it desperately seeking answers, and through the very act of diving in one is slowed down to the level of thinking, of wondering, of curiosity, and of the give and take of the hevruta (learning with others) – and from there, to a willingness to make a space in our hearts for the inevitability of contradiction, conflict and mystery.

So dive in with me. In this week’s Torah parashah we are told to be holy, as HaShem is holy. How might this idea be relevant to us, even supportive, as we try to make sense of this week?

It’s difficult to catalogue the full challenge under which our hearts labor in just this one week:

  1. Nationally, the leaked Supreme Court document which destroys any lingering hope that the Court is beyond bias or reproach;
  2. And the idea that powerful people would devote so much time and energy to controlling other people’s capacity to give birth
  3. Locally, the vandalism of our Commons linked to that of the Muslim Community Center on MLK Blvd, bringing us fully, regretfully, into the hate crimes arena 
  4. And the idea that one who does not know an other nevertheless would cause that other pain and fear
  5. Internationally, the painful twinning of joy at the State of Israel’s 74th birthday and horror at the ongoing cruelties of the Occupation
  6. And the reality that Jews are like everyone else: some are good, and some are not.

I could go on. But the number 7 is sacred to us for rest and reconciliation, and so I stop here and go on to the point: if we are to be holy, what does that mean in these days and in these circumstances?

“You shall be holy as I – HaShem – am holy.” (Leviticus 19.2). One thing we know is that Torah urges us to grow toward the ideal of perfection, even as not only humans but HaShem are repeatedly shown not to be – or, at least, our experience of HaShem is not of perfection.

Our understanding of HaShem is as partial and problematic as our understanding of our own existence – and that of others as well. The great struggle for us in a week like this is perhaps to be reminded that all of creation is linked in a great Oneness that is not at peace, not whole – and yet, also not doomed to evil.

The great Talmudic Rabbi Meir was repeatedly attacked by the ancient equivalent of white supremacists, and so he prayed for their deaths. His partner Beruriah remonstrated with him: “it is written that we are to seek the death of evil, not evil doers. Pray for them to repent, not to die.” And he did. (BT Berakhot 10a)

Whether they did is not certain. Nor is it important. We must continue to maintain our humanity as we understand it through the teachings of our Torah and its Jewish ethics. Sooner or later, what matters is that we maintain our holiness – not perfection, but dedication to a specific purpose and ideal: that the practice of חסד Hesed, the practice of love in the world, matters in and of itself. Not because it means you will be well-treated in return. That may not come. But because that which is most holy must never be dependent upon conditions.


May we continue to hold on to what we know is love even in the face of hate. May we continue to recognize and lift up the holy in ourselves and in the world.

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