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Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

May 3, 2012

By Rabbi Ziona Zelazo

Turning Mundane Holiness into Sacred Holiness

I often wonder how an esoteric term like “holy” entered our lexicon. People use terms like “Holier than Thou”, “Holy Smokes” or “Holy Cow” all the time. These terms probably have no real meaning to those who use them, other than being a figure of speech. For me, however, holiness has a spiritual and divine quality, which ideally should be experienced in a serene environment. The reality is that I live in a busy and “noisy” culture. I ask myself; “Do I even recognize the difference between what is holy and what is not? How am I supposed to feel when I encounter a holy moment or a sacred experience right here, in my own back yard”?

This week’s double portion allows us to grasp what holiness is and how to achieve it in our lives. There are three concepts presented in the “The Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19:1-2 and 20:26; (a) each one of us is capable of achieving holiness through the right actions, (b) we need to feel close to God in order to feel holy, and (c) we need to interact ethically with our relationships.It states:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, you shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1-2).

“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel”tells us that everyone is capable of achieving holiness. Upon first reading this sentence, it seems that the message is addressed to the entire community as a whole, but Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) from Velozhin makes an important point that it was actually meant to address each individual separately because he or she has the individual potential for holiness. Regardless of one’s age or gender, talent or ability, everyone should be able to strive and uncover his or her potential for holiness to the best of his/her own ability.

“You shall be holy” is presented in the plural and in the future tense because it is the prescribed state of holiness of the People of Israel. Holiness is not inherited by us. Rabbi Hayim Ben Atar, author of Or Hahayim asserts that the future tense alerts us not to think that we are already holy and be tempted to remove ourselves from fulfilling God’s commandments. Holiness is presented as a goal to be achieved. Rabbi Ben Atar’s imagery of holiness is a set of unlimited gates. When we pass one gate of holiness, there is another gate waiting. Thus, there is no end to the number of holiness levels which are readily available for us.

“For I, the Lord, your God, am holy”is presented in the singular and in thepresent tense and is the ascribed state of holiness of God. God is holy so we too, have the potential to be holy. Sifra Kadoshim 1:1 suggests that we become holy by the process of imitating God, Imitatio Dei.

What is the connecting core between all ofthese three suggestions for holiness and how does it play a role in our lives? The answer is in the set of commandments given for social and ethical actions in this parashah. Some of the commandments are: respecting parents, leaving gleanings for the poor, paying workers promptly, treating the deaf and blind rightly, rendering fair judgment in court, and holding no hatred or grudge. If we are kind, just and loving we will enter into a relationship with God, which in turn will bring holiness to our life. When we greet another person with a smile, when we show sensitivity to the environment, when we help the poor and care for global justice we walk before God and connect with God. We are given all the opportunities to build holiness in our lives.

It takes awareness and mindfulness to recognize the distinct feeling of holiness. My suggestion would be to pay attention and create intention before putting a dollar in the hat of a homeless person. Stop before making a decision and invite warm thoughts. Ask: How does it feel after performing a good act? If you feel a rush in your veins, a pumping heart and a sense of satisfaction and wholeness, than you know that you achieved holiness. This extraordinary feeling of holiness will assure you that you are connected to God in the way this week’s portion teaches us.

May we continue to walk on the path of holiness with full recognition, passing through one gate of holiness after another. Through this personal journey we will begin the process of repairing the world.


Rabbi Ziona Zelazo, AJR ’10, is working as an associate chaplain at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey and has served on its Medical Ethics Committee since 2009. She leads a monthly alternative Shabbat morning service at Temple Beth Rishon in Wycoff, NJ and teaches adult education at various synagogues.