How Can an Ordinary Person be Holy?

Image: The flames of many votive candles, out of focus. (Image: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay)

A sermon for Parashat Kedoshim

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel and say to them, ‘Be holy, because I, the Eternal your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19: 1-2)

What does the Torah mean, when it says “be holy?”  The definition of kadosh (holy) is “separate.” And yet most of the 79 commandments in both Achrei Mot and Kedoshim have to do with how we conduct our relationships with other people! These portions do not say, “Separate yourself from humanity and go live on a mountaintop.” Rather, they command us to engage with other human beings in specific ways, not only with specific boundaries but also with honesty, with kindness towards the disabled, and with responsibility towards enemies and towards the environment.  We are commanded to pay workers on time, to treat both the rich and the poor fairly, to do business properly and to love strangers!

Reading the portions can be exhausting – how can any ordinary person keep all those commandments?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, (18th-19th c) asked that exact question: how can one person do it all? How can an ordinary Joe be holy? He answered that these verses are addressed to the entire congregation of Israel, so the individual can best seek holiness by being part of the congregation.  In other words, individuals are not meant to “do it all” – we are meant to be part of a Jewish community that together will perform these many mitzvot.

No matter how hard I try, individually I will never be able to feed all the hungry, comfort all the mourners, honor all the elderly, love all the strangers. It is only when I am part of a larger group of people, a kehilah kedushah, a holy congregation, that my individual efforts can be combined with others, and thus magnified, to do the work of tikkun olam, of healing the world. Judaism is not and cannot be a private matter because no individual human being, no matter how strong, how wealthy, or how famous can do all that needs to be done.

In the morning Amidah, the part of the service we say standing, we rise together on our toes as we say, Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (“holy, holy, holy.”) Individually we rise only a little distance, perhaps an inch or two, by standing on our tiptoes. Individually, our efforts to heal the world may not seem like much. But when we rise together, when we combine our efforts, not only our prayers but our deeds will rise towards heaven.