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Just What Does It Mean to Be a 'Holy People'?

February 11, 2010 By:
Rabbi Howard A. Addison
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"And you shall be a holy people unto me."

With these words from Exodus, one might argue that this week's portion encapsulates the essence of Torah. Nestled amidst a legal compendium covering a range of ritual, civil and criminal issues, this stirring phrase allows us to glimpse the goal of sanctified living. The Zohar actually refers to the 613 mitzvot, many of which are detailed in this portion, as Ittim, guidance on how to embody the sacred in the midst of this often-tempting world.

What does it mean to be "holy people"?

Surely, living a charitable, pious and compassionate life is all part of the equation. However the 18th-century Kabbalistic text, Shomer Emunim, adds two additional criteria. The first is a scrupulous observance of the dictum found in Deuteronomy 12: " ... do that which is good and upright in the sight of God." The second is a dedication to sanctify oneself, even through those life pleasures the Torah permits. The Torah doesn't explicitly limit one's caloric intake, as long as one keeps kosher; if one honestly comes by one's livelihood and gives tzedakah accordingly, our tradition doesn't proscribe how much one may spend, as long as it doesn't financially endanger oneself or one's family.

However, the Shomer Emunim recognized that substances other than intoxicants can also be addictive. Those who "live to eat" or "shop till they drop," to give but two examples, are indeed serving a lord beyond their own control, but that lord isn't God. Hence, those who aspire to holiness are called to conscious self-restraint in the service of heaven, lest acquisition or desire master us.

How might we live as "holy people"? A recent story can offer some insight. On Dec. 24 in New York, an Italian tourist, Felicia Lettieri, 72, together with several relatives, hopped into two cabs heading for Penn Station. Inadvertently, she left behind her bag containing jewels, her family's passports and $21,000. Her driver was a Bengali-born student, Mohammad Asadujjaman, who had gotten the cab work when his hours as a factory worker were cut. Finding the bag, Asadujjaman noticed a card with the Long Island address of Felicia's sister, Francesca. He drove out there, only to find no one home. Undaunted, he left a note with his number, assuring Felicia that her bag was safe. She got everything back.

All of us would praise Asadujjaman for his integrity and benevolence. His act exemplified the tenet of doing that which is good and upright. Yet it was his response following the return of the bag, which further distinguished his deed as holy. Overjoyed, the Lettieris offered the cabbie a reward. Certainly, nothing forbids one from accepting a freely offered gift, particularly when one needs the money and has extended oneself to help another. But Asadujjaman in effect sanctified himself by forgoing that which was permitted, explicitly citing his religious beliefs and the lessons of his mother as inspirations for refusing the reward. "I'm needy, but I'm not greedy," he said. "It's better to be honest."

The Kotzker Rebbe once offered an interesting commentary on the verse, "and you shall be holy people unto me." God has enough angels, opined the Kotzker. What God and this world most desperately need are more holy people whose daily goodness, integrity and restraint for a higher purpose can help transform our messy earth into a more heavenly place.

Rabbi Howard A. Addison is religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: Rabbi a363@gmail.com.

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