The second half of this week's double portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, begins with some of the most exalted words of the Torah, "The Eternal spoke to Moses: 'Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, 'You (plural) shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.' " The words are beautiful, but do we know what it means to be "holy?"
We read this today with such cultural baggage. Even if we recognize the Hebrew definition of the word, which is rooted in the concept of separation, the baggage slips in when we ask "separate from what and to be what?" Our English language defines holiness with synonyms like reverence and saintliness.
In our minds, holiness is akin to the ultimate separateness: Godliness. To be a holy person seems to mean living at some kind of saintly level.
But those opening verses contain the seeds of their own failure. By placing the bar at an unrealistic psychological height, we absolve ourselves of real responsibility for the injunction. In our modern lives – which feel so distant from Sinai and the desert – how easily can we say, "Holiness would be nice, but not all of us can be Mother Teresa."
But this runs counter to the rest of the portion, and the rest of the book of Leviticus. For immediately after we read the initial injunction about holiness, the text turns to more mundane matters: how we treat our parents, plow our fields, do business, handle criminals.
True, the text reiterates the prohibitions against idolatry and the importance of the Sabbath, but the overwhelming thrust of Leviticus 19 is the grist of daily life. We feel a discordant clang when the text goes from, "You shall be holy," to "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until the morning." How do we resolve the dissonance?
We need to see this text as the climax of the rest of the priestly core of the Torah. Beginning with the end of Exodus, we read about the instructions for and creation of the Tabernacle, the priestly clothing and the ritual objects. We then see in Leviticus how these objects function in the sacrificial system; we watch as Moses ordains the priests, and (following the cautionary tale of Nadab and Abihu) learn which animals may be used.
All of this builds us up to the interaction with the public in Chapters 12 to 18, which interestingly begins with those individuals deemed to be problematic – the postpartum woman, the sufferer of skin-illnesses, the occupant of the mold-infested house, the seminal emitter and the menstruant. We see how the priests cleanse them of their "problems," then cleanse the ritual space. Finally, we turn to the everyday stuff of life, the basics of human existence that touch all of the Israelites: food and sex.
All of this buildup presents even more questions. Did God really intend for this elaborate system just so we can strive "not to insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind?" Did we really need 11 portions to get to "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen?"
The answer is yes. The buildup is precisely the point. The system exists because the goal is difficult. Holiness is difficult. These seemingly mundane matters can be excruciating. We need a system that helps us be morally scrupulous and ethically upright.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "The great challenge does not lie in organizing solemn demonstrations, but in how we manage the commonplace." That management is hard, and we need a system to grab our attention and force us to really consider its purpose and implications. The system exists to inspire this kind of holiness.
What Moses instructs is not a glorified goal of individual sainthood or reverence. The idea of holiness lies in individual acts of decency and heroism. They are tiny, everyday notions.
Remember, Moses speaks in the plural, "to the whole Israelite community," to be a holy community. A lofty goal, but one we can attain.
Michael Holzman is an associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City.