What Makes Us Holy?

Acharei Mot - K’doshim, Leviticus 16:1-20:27

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Dvora E. Weisberg

For many, Parshat K’doshim is the high point of Leviticus. We have slogged through chapters devoted to animal sacrifice, the priesthood, various discharges and skin afflictions, and a list of forbidden sexual partners. Finally, we reach a directive that we can embrace.

Adonai spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1-2).

This pronouncement is directed not to the priests, but to the entire community of Israel. Each of us has the capacity for holiness.

But what does it mean to be holy? The next few verses offer rules for Israelite life, but are they intended to promote holiness, or was the opening statement of the Torah portion a charge unrelated to the statements that follow? Can honoring our parents, observing the Sabbath, renouncing idolatry, or leaving the produce on the edges of our fields for the poor make us holy? Is abstaining from theft, deceitful practices, or withholding our workers’ wages until the end of the week enough to make us holy?

Commentators have struggled with this verse for centuries. Rashi, noting the lists of prohibited sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 and 20, thinks the opening verses of Leviticus 19 are a reminder to avoid sexual impropriety. Nachmanides argues that the Torah is aware that we could observe the letter of the law while still over-indulging in permitted activities, or in his words: “One could be a scoundrel with the full permission of the Torah” (Nachmanides on Lev. 19:2). For this reason, he says, we are given an overarching directive to be holy – that is, to be moderate even in permissible activities.

Itturei Torah, a collection of commentaries, offers several comments on the words “the whole Israelites community.” According to the Hatam Sofer:

This teaches that this section [of the Torah] was proclaimed in an assembly [of the people]. The Torah does not seek a holiness of solitude or separation. On the contrary… you shall be holy in the midst of the community as you are mingling with other human beings.

Citing the Sfat Emet and the Kotzker Rebbe, Itturei Torah notes that this language also indicates that holiness should be pursued by the entire Jewish people. “Only through the power of the collective can the individual be holy, not through one’s power alone.”

How does our pursuit of a life of holiness relate both to the specifics of Leviticus 19 or the Torah more broadly and to the observations offered in Itturei Torah? How, specifically, can we respond to the call to be holy as Reform Jews, Jews who believe that each of us comes to Jewish tradition as an autonomous self with agency to weigh our response to individual commandments? How do autonomous individuals exercising free will and judgment form or contribute to the collective sanctity of our Jewish community?

The Hatam Sofer teaches us that Judaism calls on us to seek holiness in community. This indicates that the Torah can only be fully embraced through our interactions with other human beings. One of the two categories of mitzvot is bein adam l’havero, actions that we are called upon to perform or actions that we should avoid because of their impact on those around us. Among the things that the Mishnah teaches us are “without measure” are acts of kindness and caring for others: welcoming guests, rejoicing with a couple at their wedding, accompanying the deceased to their final resting place. The ethical mitzvot that the early American Reform Movement saw as the essence of Judaism reflect our belief that the way we treat other human beings is a core Jewish commitment. To seek holiness through ongoing withdrawal from the world is the antithesis of Judaism.

Ritual practice, mitzvot bein adam la’maqom, are directed toward God but also rooted in community. We seek a minyan to recite key prayers and to read from the Torah. We share our Passover Seder with family and friends, even if we have to do so via Zoom. We invite others to sit in our sukkah. To practice Judaism alone is, if not impossible, at best sterile and incomplete.

Creating a holy community is challenging. I doubt that any of us have been part of a Jewish community where everyone agreed on what Judaism should look like. The closest we might come is summer camp, an intense but short-lived experience. Creating and maintaining community often requires compromise, the surrender of some part of our autonomous selves. But, our tradition tells us, only in community will each of us experience holiness. Leviticus 19:1-2 reads: “The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.”

Each of us has the capacity for holiness. But no one can achieve a k’dushah that mirrors the holiness of God. When we see ourselves as members of the people Israel, of a people called to be holy, we let go of the unbearable burden of attaining perfection as individuals. Each of us can choose the mitzvot that allow us to express our unique Jewish self, knowing that through our individual Jewish lives, we are contributing to the Jewish whole. Am Yisrael is holy not because each of us upholds at all times the highest expression of Judaism, but because each of us brings to the community a spark of holiness.