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Parsha Kedoshim: How to be Holy

Parshat Kedoshim begins by telling us to be holy. “You shall be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” are the opening words.

People seek to be holy in all sorts of ways and often travel to far-flung places in search of the holy man or woman who, for some reason, is seldom found anywhere close by – like in a mall. No, he or she is usually on a mountain-top in Asia or India. Something about being holy implies that it should not be convenient. Indeed the whole notion of holy is too often shrouded in mystery and otherworldly.

My rebbe, Rav Noah Weinberg, zt”l used to illustrate this confusion regarding the term Holy by asking someone if they wanted to be a bafufstick. “A bafufstick?” the guy would answer, “What the heck is a bafufstick?!” “Precisely”, is what Rav Noach would say. How can you be something if you have no definition of what it is? And whereas one would never toss out the term bafufstick before knowing its meaning, people all the time feel comfortable using the word Holy without ever having a clear definition or meaning as to what exactly Holiness might be.

The Torah helps us out by immediately launching into a number of mitzvot right after the command to be holy; the implication being that these mitzvot would be the path to Holiness. Interestingly, none speak of distancing oneself from humanity and being secluded on a mountain-top or in a cave, spending years absorbed in navel contemplation.

The first two commandments after being told to be Holy are: To Fear our Parents and to Keep Shabbat. Yes, Fear of parents, not Honour which was mentioned earlier in the 10 Commandments. Both these mitzvot deal with the notion of separation and that there are areas in life which have boundaries. Boundaries seems linked with the idea of Holy and indeed Rashi mentions as such early on in the parsha. 

Regarding the first of these two, we don’t have much fear of parents anymore. Parents have taken on more of a friendship role than the old-time disciplinarian figure and this has extended to society at large where parent’s friends are called by their first names and not Mr. or Mrs. There once existed a time when children would not sit in Dad’s seat and it wasn’t an issue of practicality. It wasn’t just because this was his favourite seat and he gets first dibs. No, even if he were not home or out of town, you didn’t sit in his chair. Growing up I recall having to ask permission to go into my parents bedroom to get something even when they were not there. It was holy, it was their space and off limits unless told otherwise.

And then we have Shabbat which is also ruled by boundaries – of what you can do and cannot do. The seventh day is clearly separate and different from the first six. We work and then we rest. But Shabbat is more than just hanging out on a hammock. It is using the efforts of the first six days and directing them to a spiritual end. It is a day where we spend more time with spiritual pursuits in synagogue alongside material luxuries such as a great meal, good wine, our best clothes and a fine dining table with guests. 

Holiness is not a complete disconnection from the material world but a partial one. It is about knowing when and where your place is. What is off limits and what is on limits. It is about respect, boundaries, reverence of those things greater than you and a sense of limit. It isn’t about having nothing to do with good food and drink, but knowing how and when to use it – like in a Sabbath setting or some other meaningful purpose. It’s about not being too palsy with Dad and Mom and recognizing that they are on a different level and in a different place. 

Shabbat and Parents are the two first and foremost mitzvot associated with being Holy because both share this notion of limits and boundaries. But not the boundaries of the Royal Family or some unattainable higher class where you will never belong and have zero connection with. Quite the opposite, Parents and Shabbat personify warmth, love, care and enjoying life to the fullest. And this is precisely the way to become Holy. It is the balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. The space between knowing ones place: of when to stay apart and when to step forward. Of when and how to best use and enjoy those gifts God has given us during our six days of the work-week. 

The Torah teaches that Holiness is not some obscure notion where mystery men speak in riddles and live in far-away lands, detached from everything that is real and practical. The Holy man and woman can be found everywhere, and especially in those people, near and dear to us like our parents, who teach us to live with morals, discipline, hard work, truth and goodness. This is where Holiness is to be found. It’s right there in the family and it begins at our Shabbat table – creating a place of warmth and blessing and infusing our lives with meaning, goodness and Godliness. We become Holy and thereby Godlike because “I, the Lord your God, am holy”. And the two greatest expressions of God in our world are Parents and Shabbat. 

Holly holy eyes
Dream of only me
Where I am what I am
What I believe in
Holly holy

Call the sun in the dead of the night
And the sun gonna rise in the sky
Touch a man who can’t walk upright
And that lame man, he gonna fly
And I fly, yeah
God I fly
-Neil Diamond

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