We read from the Torah tomorrow what is sometimes known as “The Heart of Scripture.” It is the portion that delineates holiness. Indeed, the parashah is referred to as the Holiness Code.
It has been said that “holy” and “holiness” are dead tired from being overworked in sermons and our prayers but almost unemployed in everyday speech. That is because we are not always certain what the words mean.
First let us say what holiness is not. It is not reserved to the few, to the select. It is available and accessible to everyone. Nor in our translation does it entail withdrawing from the world. Rather holiness is achieved in the midst of daily living. It is not apart from life – it is a part of life.
The Jewish conception of holiness is revealed most clearly in a verse from our Torah Portion: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them – you shall be holy for I, Adonai, your God am holy.” Every Jew is summoned to holiness. The Torah then goes on to teach us that we are not talking about abstract ideas but rather ethical principles and behavior. How do we attain holiness? By honoring parents, performing kindnesses, being sensitive to the dispossessed in society, refraining from tale bearing, dealing honestly in business. Holiness is the dimension that adds life to our years.
A poet once captured the Jewish conception of this ideal in these words:
“There is holiness when we strive to be true to the best we know. There is holiness when we are kind to someone who cannot possibly be of service to us. There is holiness when we promote family harmony. There is holiness when we forget what divides us and remember what unites us. There is holiness when we are willing to be laughed at for what we believe in. There is holiness when we love – honestly, unselfishly. There is holiness when we remember the lonely and bring cheer into a dark corner. There is holiness when we share – our bread, our ideas, our enthusiasm.”
“In our time,” wrote Dag Hammarskjold, “the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”
Translating our best intentions into action is where the road to holiness has always been.
LESLIE Y. GUTTERMAN is senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Providence.