What does it mean to be “Holy”?

11 Adar 1 5782

This week in Parashat Tetzaveh we repeatedly find the idea of “kedusha” (“holiness”). Exodus 28: 2 – 4 addresses the “holy garments”; chapter 29:43 and 44, the consecrated service to God is spoken of as “holy”. In chap.28:36, the plaque on Aaron, the High Priest’s forehead would read “Kodesh L’Adonai” קֹדֶשׁ לַיהוָה(“Holy to God”). In chap. 29:33-37, the altar and the offerings were also called “Kedoshim” (“holy”) as well as in chap. 30:10, the holy of holies inside the Tent of Meeting. In short, the principle of “Kadosh” is clearly present in this parashah.

But what does “kadosh” (“holy”) mean?

Kedushah (קְדֻשָּׁה), which in Hebrew means “holiness”, is related to the action of separating and/or dedicating and is also seen in root of the verb “Lehakdish” which means “to separate” or “dedicate”, whether it be an animal offered to God, or an individual or a group of individuals set apart and dedicated for a specific function. Kedushah is often used to describe God, as well as the earthly items that are considered sacred. It is also used to refer to the name of a prayer in Judaism that describes God’s holiness. When Kadosh refers to a specific physical space or time, the intention is to define something that is separate and/or dedicated to a specific goal. For example: the Biblical Festivals (Moedim) are the spiritual times that are Kadosh; the Kodesh Hakadoshim, the innermost place of the Bet Hamikdash, the Tent of Meeting, is where only the Cohen HaGadol (the High Priest) would enter once a year on Yom Kippur as part of his service on that special day.

The word “holy” can be applied to anything directly related to God; for example, the items used to worship Him such as the holy utensils used in the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:4). The Torah also speaks of holy places such as the ground where Moses approached the burning bush in Exodus 3:2-5 or the assemblies where we celebrate the Moedim (Feasts) each year (Leviticus 23:37). In this same sense, Biblical Judaism is interested in “sanctifying matter” – (Lekadesh et hachomer) so that we can add spiritual content to our lives by changing the abstract idea of holiness into something concrete which will help guide us during our temporary stay on earth.

“Kedusha” (“sacredness”, “sanctity”) is to show that the Almighty is infinitely kind – the attribute through which man can establish a greater closeness with Him, and “presenting” Him as the sole Sovereign of the universe. Things in this earthly world only obtain sanctity when they receive it from God Himself, when they become a reflection of God through His quality of giving. Since we cannot have absolute holiness, the only way we can access it is by becoming a vessel of His divine holiness. When we understand ourselves to be finite, we can turn to God in search of holiness.

Sacred things are separated from the mundane when they move away from everything that does not reflect His divine plan and attributes; the sacred moves away from that which is not eternal. For example, Shabbat is holy because it is the only day of the week when we fully “accept” God’s sovereignty over the world. We do not work to earn a living, as we do on the other days of the week. However, that doesn’t mean that we abstain from eating, drinking, or other physical pleasures as they are part of how we receive divine goodness. There is nothing created by God that is antithetical to pleasure and living. However, the work of man contains elements that are not eternal. The dependence of man upon the material world began at the Garden of Eden, when to reign over physical matter, man had to first work for it. On Shabbat, we overcome our “dependence” upon the material and receive only from God that day.

Holiness in this world is not beyond our reach; it is in the environment around us and within ourselves. Everything created has at least a bit of sanctity in it or it couldn’t exist. The concept of holiness (“Kedusha”) must be understood within the context of our spirit and our body being one and should not be considered separate compartments of life, and that our spirituality must permeate our entire existence. Worshiping and serving God refers to our actions which celebrate the work of the Creator among men. Every act of life, every gesture, can enter the realm of the sacred, when there is the awareness of the ever – present relationship between us and God. God is everywhere, not only because of His omniscience, but because we “carry” Him wherever we exert influence through our actions. Thus, “kedusha” is constantly materializing through practical actions throughout our day.

With the sacred, which can coexist even with the profane, the concept of the election of the people of Israel emerges. It can be an historical model of kedusha, as Israel was called, separated, to form “a kingdom of priests, a holy people” (Ex 19:6). The Torah presents Israel as having been chosen, but this is not to be understood as being privileged in relation to other peoples; “the Chosen People” means a people to whom God has drawn near and who He has set apart for a purpose. In the words of the rabbi and philosopher Abraham Heshel, “The meaning of the term “election” is understood in relation to God, and not in relation to other peoples. It does not refer to an inherent quality of the Jewish people, but to a relationship that exists between God and that people. The good cannot exist without the sacred. In fact, the good things were created in the first six days, but the seventh day was proclaimed by God as “kadosh”, “holy”.

In the final analysis, it is God who attributes the potential for sacredness to things, and it is man who is called to take them to their maximum moral potential on this earth. There are things whose potential is eternal and other things for which man has the power to empty of that sacredness and destroy. However, it is in our hands to assure that everything created fulfills its role on this earth and reflects the divine immanence and transcendence. 

Among the “holy things” mentioned in this parashah, we find the priestly garments, which are described in detail. There is a popular saying that “the robe does not make the monk”, which refers to the fact that what you see on the outside does not necessarily reflect what is on the inside. So why did God mandate such “special” clothing for the priests? This is to teach us that there must be balance between who we are inside and outside as depicted in “the Ephod” which had twelve precious stones arranged equidistant from each other. Each had to occupy a very specific place, and each represented one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The High Priest was dressed majestically which made him look like someone special, someone of high rank, but at the same time, the High Priest could not lose focus on his mission. He needed to be humble. Humility is recognizing his place. He was neither a superior nor an inferior being. He was simply recognizing his role. It is important to not take anyone else’s place while also not neglecting our own. Humility is occupying one’s own place while allowing the other to occupy theirs. That balance is very important. Lack of humility is due to an excessive ego. The excess of humility makes us tend to disappear and abandon our role, leaving the space empty. Each stone had to occupy its corresponding place in the Ephod and not any another.

How do we do this today?

By using the talent or talents that we have been given as our responsibility towards others. When the people saw the Ephod that the Cohen Gadol wore, they were reminded that each tribe represented there had a specific place. This applies to everyone. Occupying a place that does not correspond to me, exercising a role that does not belong to me has consequences, as well as not exercising the role or not occupying the space that was assigned to me.

How can I fill my role? 

By utilizing my talents to serve others. When I do this, I achieve the balance between what is seen and what is not seen within me; between my “outer garments” and my interior. That is why action is so important and not just thinking about doing something. Both are required but both must be in sync.

Each of us has the obligation to “improve ourselves” and fulfill our task of participating in “improving the world” and being God’s partner in building a better society. It is true that we often can’t reach that desired level, but the important thing is to know that we can always make the decision to start over. What is already done, cannot always be undone, however, there is always the possibility of beginning again. That’s the meaning of “teshuva”, the “return” to the right path. What is important is our decision, the actions we take and our kavanah, intention.

“You shall be holy, for I am holy, Elohim your God” (Lev 19:2) finds its most explicit meaning when we become aware that we are created in the image of the Eternal; this possibility with which we approaches the qualities of the Creator in the moral conduct that gives us the possibility of evolving to increase our good qualities and to lessen our bad ones. This way we feel that we can and must “help” the Eternal in the renewal of the world.

Shabbat Shalom 

Alejandro Alvarado