Rise Up and Be Holy

Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on April 27, 2018


One of the holiest, most sacred moments of my life took place in a cave in the desert of the Negev as my year-in-Israel class of rabbis, cantors, and educators concluded a field trip singing the words with which we began tonight’s service, “ozi v’zimrat ya, vayehi li lishua, God is my strength and might, God will be my deliverance." [1] The cave caused everyone’s voices to echo and bounce into a beautiful chord. It did not feel like anything I had heard us do all year. The moment was kadosh, a holy experience in the sense that the word kadosh, whose root, kuf, dalet, shin, can be translated as both “holy,” and “separate.” [2] The holy sound was separate from our norm, it was unlike any sound we had produced before.

The word kadosh plays a prominent role in the Kedoshim section of this week’s double portion, Achrei-Mot Kedoshim. Tucked away in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, our sacred text holds the Holiness Code, which delineates numerous ethical obligations and injunctions, ritual commandments, and the golden rule of our people, “love your neighbor as yourself." [3]

These words, which we also recite on Yom Kippur afternoon begin, וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, God spoke to Moses saying, דַּבֵּר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל, speak to the entire community of Israel וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם and say to them, and here is the important part:

 קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃

"You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy. You shall be separate, for I, Adonai your God, am separate." [4]

The separateness mentioned in this verse is not about being separate from other people, but rather about separating oneself from the desires that lead us astray. Because when we are able to elevate ourselves above the things that bring us down, that’s when we can begin to truly fulfill the demands of the Holiness Code. That’s when we can begin to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, honor our parents, turn away from the modern-day idols of our cell phones, technology, or social media accounts, and find time to set aside for the holiness of Shabbat, that separate day that God has given us in our week. To fulfill the pieces that stand out to us in our Holiness Code, we must take action and do the things that make us holy, that make us separate.

At times, the assent toward holiness may indeed come off as pretentious! Yet it is at the center of what our Torah calls us to do. As such, we must be aware of how our attitudes and actions are experienced by others while we try to better ourselves and ascend in holiness. 

We must take special care to ensure that the separatism we seek is in comparison to ourselves and not others. We must take special care that in our ascent we do not minimize the choices of those around us, but rather focus inward on our own choices. This is about increasing our personal awareness so that we can bring more holiness into the world.

This parashah in particular highlights the ways in which we can be holy: honoring our parents, setting aside the seventh day, not stealing, not worshiping idols and so on. When we fulfill these and the many other commandments from Kedoshim, we begin to resemble what is most holy, God.

When we raise our glasses and sanctify our wine with kiddush before a Shabbat dinner, at the end of services, or before any meal in which we enjoy a glass of wine, by reciting a blessing, we separate ourselves from what we were doing before, to the holy moment of being able to enjoy that glass. 

When we separate our service with Kaddish, we mark the transition points in our service. Though the recitation of Kaddish 5 or 6 times throughout the service is not a custom of our congregation like it may be at others, we do take a moment of separation and transition into the concluding portion of our service with Kaddish.

When we attend a wedding and witness the couple under the chuppah for the Kiddushin portion of the wedding, we witness a time in which the couple becomes both sacredly connected to and separate from one another. 

These examples attach directly to the root of the word with which we began, kadosh, and yet there are an infinite number of ways that we can elevate ourselves to be holy, to be like God. 

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃

You all shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, The word, tih’yu, is not just written in future tense, but in the imperfect form. In its essence it doesn’t just mean “you shall be holy [or separate],” rather; it is something that must be worked for, you shall constantly be working to be holy for I, Adonai your God am holy…you shall constantly be working to be separate, for I, Adonai your God, am separate. [5]

Holiness is the highest plane of humanity, it is where we are most like God. But we must remember, as the great Hassidic Rabbi Levi of Berdichever reminds us, “However holy we can become, God’s holiness will always be superior to ours.” And yet, we should all constantly strive to bring holiness into this world, because when we take even a moment to contemplate God’s holiness, it inspires us to then emulate God’s holiness. According to Rabbi Levi, the Hassidic Master, God’s holiness will increase proportionately to the amount of holiness to be found amongst the people on earth! [6] The more holiness we bring, the greater our world can be. 

“You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” This is a promise! It’s a promise that if we live a life fulfilling the ethical obligations of our tradition and our culture, then our lives will become like the holiness of God.

Let us seek out moments to recognize when we have elevated ourselves and the community. Those moments in the cave in the Negev truly gave me an energy, a spark that pushed me through the rest of the week and guided me toward finding other ways to elevate myself, to find the holiness of the world. That is our task. Our task is to seek, to find, and to recognize the holiness in our lives so that we can elevate our world. Go out and bring holiness to the world. Elevate the otherwise profane and bless it. Continue to recognize Shabbat throughout your day tomorrow. Help the stranger you see on the street. Show care for the person you pass asking for money. Pursue honest business deals. Show respect for parents and family members. In all that you do, recall the power and holiness of God, and let that guide your actions toward good.

כן יהי רצון

May this be God’s will.

[1] Ex. 15:2

[2] Sifra Kedoshim 10:2

[3] Lev. 19:18

[4] Lev. 19:1–2

[5] Rabbi David A. Lyon highlights the use of “tih’yu” https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/acharei-mot-kdoshim/aiming-higher-life-human-holiness

[6] Kedushat Levi, Leviticus, Kedohsim 1