And the L‑rd spoke unto Moses saying: speak to the Congregation of Israel and say to them: Ye shall be Holy. For I the L‑rd your G‑d am Holy.
What an uncomfortable word! Holiness. It conjures up in the mind of many, a fanatical individual who believes he has a special line to the supernatural - a "fanatic" whose religious views allow for no dissension. Holiness, as many of the words in the English language, seems to have lost its special and unique definition and is today viewed with suspicion and concern. Worse yet, our passage seems to indicate that humankind can aspire to a state of Holiness which is akin to that of G‑d's own Holiness. For Judaism, this seems a rather odd view as our religion always underscores the unique character of the Deity; a character the essence of which is truly beyond the human being both in thought and deed.
The Talmud as well shares insights regarding the successful emulation of G‑d's Holiness in the human being, which are very disconcerting. "G‑d determines, and the righteous nullify His determination" (Talmud Shabbos 63a), "The righteous have the strength to create the world" (Sanhedrin 65,b) and "Their stature (the righteous) exceeds that of the Ministering angels" (Chulin, 81b). Holiness then is something unique, something special that can literally place man on an almost equal footing with G‑d.
And yet, as we look further on in our Parsha, there seems to be nothing mystical or unusual about the commandments set forth as the postscript to the commandment to be Holy. Sabbath observance, caring for the poor, honesty, etc., are the postscripts to this unusual commandment to effect Holiness in our lives. Nachmonides in his commentary reminds us that we should be Holy in those things that are permitted to us as well. Simply, an activity that is not prescribed as either a positive or negative commandment in the Torah as well affords us a chance at reaching Holiness. Holiness then is literally a day-to-day common experience for the Jew. So what is Holiness in Judaism?
Holiness is life itself. The awareness of the unusual role humankind plays in Creation, that of being created imatio Dio, in the image of G‑d, should be reflected in every thought and deed of the human being. Elevating even simple day to day experiences to a higher level by Sanctifying them toward the goal of connection with G‑d, is an essential quality of the Jewish definition of the life experience here in this physical world. The simplest of acts imbued with a sense of G-dliness becomes yet another means by which we bond with the Eternal with G‑d. Moreover, as we live in the physical world, the physical world being our domain through which we can achieve Holiness, we can, by truly emulating G‑d in the mundane, rise to a spiritual level that is beyond even the Ministering Angels. For G‑d in His wisdom created the physical world placing humankind at its zenith for just such a purpose.
You may say, "Rabbi, this is all very nice, but how does it impact upon the daily life of each of us?" My answer is that the concept of Holiness as described in our Torah is one of the most essential elements in the human experience, one that is sorely needed in today's world.
Let me explain. We were all witness to the horrible and, I would add, the qualification of macabre manner in which Terri Schaivo's life was taken from her. An estranged husband, a man who had already established a family with another woman, was, by legal technicality, determined to have all legal authority over Terri's life. Shockingly, this power was rooted in the concept of the holiness of the marriage vow, which the Courts in this country have recognized as trumping even the love and devotion of parenthood. It is your spouse, according to the courts, by virtue of the sanctification of your relationship as husband and wife before G‑d, who enjoys the ultimate decision making authority in your life when you can no longer make decisions for yourself. Yet, it is the same Courts that, because of the "separation of church and State," really have no tools by which to evaluate whether this holiness of marriage still stands. It doesn't take a genius to know that in Terri's case, where the status of holy matrimony was entered into within the framework of the religious tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, that the Church would view her husband's actions with another woman as a clear demonstration that the Holiness of his marriage to Terri was invalidated, at least in his own mind. Yet, the Courts could not address this obvious question. Invalidating the holiness of his marital vows to Terri would have invalidated her husband's absolute sway over Terri's life, allowing for loving and caring parents to care for her. Holiness, that of being created in the image of G‑d, the unlimited potential of humankind to Sanctify each and every human act, imbuing it with a strength of moral and ethical fortitude that can shape the world, or as the Talmud states, literally give humankind the ability to create a world seems to be ever more absent in society's decisions.
We, the Jewish People, who recently at our Passover table removed a drop of wine from our cup as we recounted each of the ten plagues, symbolically mourning the death of our sworn enemies and taskmasters the ancient Egyptians, through our tradition, through G‑d's word, call out to all our fellow human beings to be ever cognizant of the sanctity, the holiness, that is found in all aspects of the human life experience and the immense potentiality of its realization to literally establish paradise on earth.
The de facto murder of Terri Schaivo is sadly but one small example of how we have lost connection with the holiness element in our lives. When the "quality of life" was first offered as the yardstick for measuring the need to continue one's life or aid in another's efforts to hold on to life, I and others were appalled. Whose "quality of life" definition were we going to follow? For me, "quality of life" was traditionally a euphemism utilized by the bigot to diminish the value of another's life. Shocking as it may seem, we are now witnessing the emergence of yet another term - "personality" - as the defining method by which society evaluates the right to life for another human being. Mental retardation and physical abnormalities are sheltered under this new "umbrella" definition, opening the way for the elimination of those who don't have full "personality," the afflicted mentally and physically challenged. Indeed, this concept is now seriously being considered in some of the Scandinavian countries. It would allow doctors, for example, to end the lives of babies born with afflictions, as their afflictions would by this new definition limit their full "personality," disqualifying them to have a life experience.
Judaism has always viewed freedom as a beginning, not an end. The release from the bonds of slavery in Egypt started the ancient Jews on a spiritual journey leading them to Sinai. There, they received true freedom; the understanding of life as a holy experience in all its manifestations. If we are to truly be the Holy nation G‑d calls upon us to be, if we are to truly emulate His Holiness on this planet, now is the time for us to return to our Jewish values especially as they reflect upon the life experience, and join forces with those of like mind to begin to move this country toward a re-application of the wonder and majesty of life itself. For where there is no mystery, no holiness in life, there naturally develops a cynicism toward it. We must move ourselves away from the growing "culture of death" that seems to be ever encroaching upon the lives of each of us, reinvigorating the awe and wonder all Americans used to share when contemplating life and its potentiality.