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How Do We Make Things Holy?

Torah Talk on Bechukotai 5779

This week in temple we complete the reading of the book of Leviticus, with a portion of the Torah known as B’chukotai. At the completion of a book that is focused on holiness and its rituals of sanctification and celebration, we conclude our exploration with a statement of covenant: God says, if you keep these, My laws of holiness, you will long flourish in the land that I will give you. It is a promise based on action: if we live lives dedicated to holiness, our actions will bring blessings. We have the capacity to create a world that has meaning and goodness.

But holiness is a strange idea. In Judaism, holiness is usually something that we create, rather than something that is given to us from above or outside. A little example to demonstrate how it is that we create holiness: a sheepskin is certainly not a holy object, right? Where I’m from in Southern California you use them to cover your car seats, especially if you have convertible. Nothing holy in that.

So what happens if you take that sheepskin, and remove the hair, and cure it into parchment. Is it holy now? No. It’s just a piece of parchment.

But if you take that parchment, and give it to sofer, a scribe who writes on it a section of the text of a Torah, and if that piece of parchment is sewn together with other texts like that, and if the whole parchment role is wrapped around atzei chayim, wodden poles, and if it’s dedicated and carried around a synagogue and chanted from publicly and blessings are said over it and it’s used for bar and bat mitzvahs and touched and kissed with the fringes of a talit—well, now that piece of parchment has become something more than it was. It has become holy through our own actions. We have taken a common object—a sheepskin that we could have used for any number of uses—and created out of it an object that is sacred.

The abiding lesson of Leviticus is that we have the capacity to make our own lives holy in a similar way. We can lead lives that are ordinary and prosaic, or we can choose to live truly holy lives. That choice is, in fact, an ethical one. We make that choice every day, sometimes every hour, when we decide how we are going to act. When we give freely of ourselves, as Leviticus asks us to do, we increase holiness in the world. And perhaps even more importantly, we give our lives beauty, meaning and sanctity.

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