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Limping into Holiness

  • Limping into Holiness

    Tzav, Leviticus 6:1−8:36
D'var Torah By: 

In December 2005, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, cofounder of the Crips, the violent Los Angeles street gang, was executed by lethal injection, paying the ultimate price for his violent past. During his years in prison, Williams had renounced gang violence, written children's books with an anti-gang message, and donated the books' earnings to anti-gang community groups. Questions surrounding Williams' execution and whether the governor of California ought to have granted clemency will linger. But what Tookie Williams did in his final years was good. He could not save his life, but he steered himself away from his past and pointed others toward a better future. These were holy acts.

Holiness is a central concern of Jewish life. "You shall be holy," God tells us (Leviticus 19:2). We are to become "a holy people" (Deuteronomy 26:19). We are to separate ourselves from that which is not holy, or not yet holy.

We can certainly view works of expansive goodness?such as working in a soup kitchen, lobbying to end genocide in Darfur, or simply opening our hearts to one who is lost or in pain?as acts of holiness. Judaism has always elevated tikkun olam, "repair of the world," and g'milut chasadim, "deeds of loving-kindness," to positions of primary importance in our religious lives. When we take the time (especially when such time is so difficult to find) to visit a friend at the hospital, to stop for someone whose car has broken down, to place a phone call to our mom or dad-these are holy acts. And if God takes pleasure in the offerings of our lives, these might very well be among God's favorites.

But what of the times we stumble? What about the truth withheld, the hand withdrawn, the heart grown cold? Being human is a flawed venture. Few, if any, are those who haven't erred in exercising freedom of choice. We wander into selfishness, attack with angry words, become blinded by our pride, and even deny healthy and loving attention to our bodies and our souls. How far must we journey to restore holiness at times like these?

"This is the ritual of the reparation [guilt] offering: it is most holy" (Leviticus 7:1). With one simple phrase, a sublime message is offered us. If we have fallen, we need not remain forever in the dust. If our words or our actions have undermined God's creation-brought discomfort or pain to others or to ourselves-there is almost always a path open to us that will bring uplift, restoring at least some of life's beauty and wholeness from where it has been fractured.

This is t'shuvah, "return" or "repentance." More than its intoning, as we do so plentifully on the High Holy Days, these are the actual deeds that apply the much-needed balm to the wounds we have dispensed over time. It is not easy to do. Reconnecting with a brother or sister we've not spoken to for years, admitting to and rectifying ways in which we've exploited others in order to succeed at work, seeking professional help for a lingering physical or emotional condition-these are heroic acts. We may not receive a medal from anyone for performing such feats, but we'll certainly sleep better at night for having taken powerful (even if tiny) steps toward initiating positive change and recovery.

There are deeds of purity and selflessness that we know to be holy, and we can consider ourselves very lucky when we are ready and able to perform them. For the other 99 percent of our waking moments, we muster the hard-won courage to take on the truly formidable challenges of fixing what's gone wrong; we engage in acts of epic consequence (for us) that require Samson-like determination to bring into being. They are no less holy.

Our ancestors envisioned a community in which the mechanism for return was enshrined in its sacred rituals. An institutionalized accessible path to get back home was offered to all. With that path, they counseled wisely: bring this offering, a contrite heart, and the gritty determination to do better, and the road to renewal will open before you.

Redemption will only come kicking and screaming. It will not likely take our hand with a smile. We are accustomed to living with circumstances that create the demand for t'shuvah. But knowing how to address them and rising to meet that need may be separated by a gulf as vast and dispiriting as an unparted Red Sea. Raise the staff, however, and, like Moses, we can create miracles. That power never goes away. It may come as a surprise to learn that we carry it within; it is nonetheless available, even if long unused.

Tookie Williams's life is over. Our society decided he'd get no more chances. The question is, what about you and me? Are we worth saving?

It is our stubborn Jewish faith that no life is beyond reclaim. Like Jacob, we may limp through our years on permanently torn bodies. But perhaps it's time to set our own feet upon the broken yet precious and eternally holy road that leads to forgiveness and repair. 


  • It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer's sun, and in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn. It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted, to speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer, to listen to the hungry raven's cry in wintry season when the red blood is fill'd with wine and with the marrow of lambs. [...] It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity. (William Blake, The Poetical Works of William Blake [London: Oxford University Press, 1914], p. 353)
  • Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn used to recite this poem: Angel, angel, 'tis not through desert that thou dwellest on high. Thou hast no worry to earn a living, thou hast no children to raise, thou hast no nagging wife, thou needst no food, thou needst no drink, thou sufferest not from temptation. Come down to this world a little-try marrying a wife, try bringing up children, try earning a living, try food and drink, then we'll see if you can be an angel. (Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen, Touching Heaven Touching Earth [Tel Aviv: Sadan Publishing, 1976], p. 33)
  • I once asked a person, "Where do you find the strength to carry on?" And the person responded, "Life is a heavy burden to carry . . . but I do find strength in the ashes." "In the ashes?" I asked. "Yes," said the person. "You see, each of us is on a journey. A difficult journey. And during this journey, we may feel that we are alone. But in the process of our journey, we must build a fire-a fire for light, for warmth, and for food. When our fingers scrape the ground, hoping to find the coals of another's fire, what we often find are ashes. And in those ashes, which will not give us light or warmth, there may be sadness, but there is also testimony. Because these ashes tell us that somebody else has been in the night. Somebody else has bent to build a fire. And somebody else has carried on. And sometimes that can be enough." (Adapted from Noah ben Shea, Jacob the Baker [New York: Ballantine Books, 1989], pp. 108-113)


  1. Acts of social justice are vital; so are the health and well-being of our everyday relationships. How is the emotional strength needed to repair our wider community different from that needed to mend the more constant relationships in our everyday lives?
  2. Consider a time when you first took up residence in the realm of brokenness. What has helped you to carry on?
  3. If life has overwhelmed you and defeat seems assured, is it time yet to resume your struggle to walk that road to forgiveness and repair? Do you have a clergyperson, family member, therapist, or close friend you can speak with about it?

Billy Dreskin is the rabbi of Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, New York.

Reference Materials: 

Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
, pp. 593–614