We could spend an entire year studying this week’s Torah portion. There is an abundance of mitzvoth in the parsha that demand a total commitment to justice, kindness, and fairness. However, what is significant is that the parsha sees these mitzvoth as key elements in the pursuit of holiness. Holiness is certainly an essential aspect of Judaism, and by acting in a holy fashion we can transform the world.
But what is holiness? The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, usually means to be separate or distinguished. When we make the Kiddush Friday night, we are separating Shabbat from the regular weekday. The Temple was holy because one had to act with respect and reverence when there; and the “kodesh kodeshim”, the holy of holies, was the inner sanctum of the Temple in which only the High Priest could enter on Yom Kippur, a place which was separated and distinguished from the rest of the Temple.
The parsha this week gives us the recipe for achieving holiness, or “Kedusha”. It introduces a variety of ways to integrate holiness into our daily lives, including: The honoring of parents; charity; paying a workers wages on time; not placing a stumbling block in front of the morally blind; judging fairly; not gossiping; not standing idly by when someone else is in danger; loving your neighbor; and not to bear a grudge or take revenge.
The message of the parsha is simple. Holiness does not require grand gestures; you don’t have to cloister yourself alone on top of a mountain to become holy. We can become holy through the simple acts of our everyday lives. Our behavior in all arenas of life, family, social, business, personal, and religious, should reflect our recognition of God’s hand in this world. Our behaviors are that which distinguish us from animals. When we act in ways which are holy, we are in fact elevating our behaviors from the level of instinct to the level of intellect. In Judaism we do not reject the physical world, but we elevate those behaviors by making meaningful distinctions that allow even instinctive behaviors like eating to be filled with holiness.
The Mesilat Yesharim is a book written by Rabbi Chaim Luzzato in 1738. It is a book which inspired the the ideas of the “Mussar Movement” – a method of teaching the central idea that in order to experience spiritual growth we need to teach ways in which to build better character traits. The book ends the chapter on Kedusha/Holiness by saying that, “the real heights of Kedusha are not reached by refraining from or avoiding contact with the physical aspects of our world. On the contrary, it is achieved by converting that world itself into a true expression of the ideal,” (Rabbi Farber- Darche Noam). In other words, in order to live a life of holiness, we have to live “regular” lives which involve study, prayer, and performing acts of kindness. If we pay attention to our relationship with God and with our fellow man, then we will indeed transform our lives, actualize these ideals and create a world of our own filled with holiness.