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How to be Holy and Why

Acharei Mot - Kedoshim 5781

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

During a discussion about the Counting of the Omer in a Beit Simcha Adult Education Academy class this week we were discussing the calendar, how it works and why it is the way that it is, and I remarked that while years and months are based in the cycles of the celestial bodies, weeks are purely and totally arbitrary. That is, a solar year, 365 days, is based on the cycle of the earth’s position to the sun. You do have to add one day every four years, a leap day set up for February 29th as we all know, to make the annual American calendar work consistently over many centuries, but otherwise it mirrors the solar year pretty darned well.

Months are based on the cycles of the moon, the lunar calendar that lies at the heart of the Jewish Hebrew calendar, as well as the Chinese calendar and many other ancient understandings of time. Each night you can watch time pass, just by looking out at the night sky—that’s precisely how our ancestors figured out when there was a new moon, in ancient Israel—and see the moon wax from new moon to full moon and back once again, until it’s time for a new moon, rosh chodesh, and thus a new month. The months do vary a bit in terms of how many days they are, but the moon doesn’t lie. You can set your calendar by its months, and we have done so for millenia.

That’s years and months, one based on the sun and the other on the moon. But weeks? Weeks, in turns out, are fully arbitrary. Why 7 days in a week? That numbers is connected to no natural phenomenon at all. There are approximately 52 weeks in a year—an odd number, 52, and an inexact one, too; 52 weeks is 364 days, so it’s a year of weeks plus one day and one quarter day, if you do the math, which means that the days of the week change for every calendar date every single year. There are also about four of these seven day weeks in a lunar month, except when that moon cycle is 29 days or 30 days instead of 28, which is most of the time, which means, again, the weeks don’t line up very well with the months at all; just ask any bookkeeper or accountant, who will tell you that there are four-and-one-third-weeks in a month, and 52.1429 in a year. Who came up with this odd measurement of time?

Now it’s very strange to think about this, but in practical fact, you could just as easily have three 10 day weeks in a month, or even three 9 day weeks, or four 8 day weeks, and it wouldn’t change anything about the flow of the seasons or the paths of the stars in the heavens. In fact, during the French Revolution, they actually experimented with a calendar of three ten day weeks each month, seeing it as a more rational approach to counting time. That practice that lasted for about 9 confusing years…

Still, it’s a good question: just why do we have 7-day weeks?

Most scholars believe that it was us Jews who invented the 7-day week, based on our understanding that God rested on the 7th day after creating the universe. Why seven days? Because we work for six days and then rest. In the phrase that is the key to understanding the whole idea, God rested and made the 7th day holy. The commandment to honor the Sabbath day—Shabbat, the day of rest, Yom haShvi’I, the seventh day indeed—is based on the understanding that God commanded us to preserve this day as holy because on it, God rested God’s own self, and vayinafash, was reinvigorated.

I don’t believe any commandment is given in the Torah more frequently than this particular mitzvah, this command to take a 7th day for rest. It is repeated in various formulations seven times—poetic, that—in the Book of Exodus alone, restated several times in Leviticus, reiterated in Numbers and then yet again in Deuteronomy. The rest of the calendar commands in the Torah are stated a few times, but nowhere near as often or forcefully as the commandment for Shabbat.

So why is there so much focus on this concept of a seven-day week, with one special day set aside for rest, recreation, and spiritual refreshment?

In a way it’s very simple. The idea is to take something ordinary, one very arbitrary day of the week—you know one that ends with the letter “y”—and decide that it will be holy. It’s a process of making what would otherwise remain simple and regular and turn it into something very special. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said so beautifully, on Shabbat we create holiness in time. We take 24 or 25 hours that are just like every other 24 or 25 hours in the course of an arbitrarily determined week and we choose to make them special, unique, different, sacred. You know, holy.

Which brings us to this week’s second Torah portion, whose principal subject is how we create holiness, the ways in which we deliberately solicit sanctity.

The first question that arises is just who it is that gets to make things holy. The obvious answer is that it is God who does so, for God is holy, and we are commanded in one of our weekly Torah portions from Leviticus, Kedoshim, to “be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy”, in the original Hebrew, “kedoshim tihiyu, ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem.”

But not so fast. The Hebrew word for holiness, kadosh, comes from the word hekdesh, something set apart. That is, there is nothing intrinsically holy about holy things. We simply set apart ordinary objects and so touch them with sanctity.

Early on in Judaism holiness is clearly delineated as a shared process, a covenant we have with God to make things, and people, holier. I’ll give you a little example from Jewish tradition. Is a sheepskin holy? Well, no, not in and of itself. You can make a coat out of it—particularly if you are an Australian—and use it to keep warm in winter. If you are from California, as I am, then you know that the proper use of sheepskins is as comfortable seat covers for Mustang convertibles.

So, a sheepskin is not a particularly holy object. But if you take that same sheepskin and clean the wool off of it, and properly scrape it, pretty soon you have parchment. And if you take that parchment and using special ink you reverently write upon it the words of the Torah, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, and if you take that sheepskin and roll it on two wooden handles, and cover it over with a special garment, a kind of ephod, pretty soon you have a Torah. And now virtually every Jew will agree—and it’s very hard to get every Jew to agree to anything—pretty soon every Jew will agree that the sheepskin has somehow become a Torah, and now it is clearly holy.

And of course, in the coming season of graduations you can use sheepskins for diplomas, which are holy in their own right.

You see, in general, the creation of holiness is a partnership, a kind of joint project, between human beings and God. While God provides the inspiration, the ideal of holiness and perfection, we are the ones who choose to imbue certain objects, like Torahs and synagogues, with holiness.

Now there are exceptions to this concept, this understanding that we ourselves take the ordinary and make it sacred, take something that is chol and recreate it kodesh. A few years ago I traveled around the world visiting all the holiest places on earth, of every religious tradition and of some ancient, lost religions that we can only wonder about. And there is no doubt that some of these places have an extraordinary, exceptional power that remains even when there are no longer any adherents there to bring sacrifices or pray or celebrate or even mourn.

But how did these places become so amazingly powerful? Was it because God descended on that mountain or river or into that cave or temple? Or was it because people responded to the sense that these places were sacred, and brought with them that regard and respect and reverence to the places?

I tend to believe that what is retained in those holy places is a kind of residue of spiritual sanctity, a mystical reminder of the many prayers, hopes and dreams that were reposited on those stones or in those waters. Think of the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and the way that the very stones seem to radiate human and holy hopes for healing, redemption, love, fertility, peace. Yet it wasn’t a central shrine in the days of the Temple, but a retaining wall holding up the Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount on which the actual sanctuary, courtyards and altars stood. But now, after nearly 2000 years of prayers and p’takim, paper wishes placed within its stones, it is something much more powerful and meaningful. That is, something holy.

I’ve been asked if a person can become holy. The Torah, particularly here in Leviticus, seems to be directed towards making the priests themselves into holy beings. But the truth is that they are not actually sacred people. In fact, you can make a good case that their garments and accoutrements are holier than they themselves are. No, the concept of how we are to make ourselves holy is parallel to how we make places or objects holy, but it follows along different lines.

You see, in Kedoshim the central commands of holiness are focused on how we act. If we wish to fulfill this commandment to be kedoshim we must choose to live in ways that follow the code established here at the center of the Torah: do not swear falsely. Do not slander others. Leave charity for the poor, the strangers, the weak, the widow, the orphan. Do not curse those who can’t hear your curses, or put moral stumbling blocks before the morally blind. Do not hate others in your heart. Work out your differences. Love the stranger among you, for you were strangers yourselves so many times in so many lands. And, of course, love your neighbor as you love yourself—you know, love the one who looks just like God, even when he or she looks nothing like you.

Elizabeth Topper has a great poem about this, called holiness:

Holiness, it transpires,

is not living hermit-like

in the rarefied air

of a mountain peak,

filling up days

in meditation and prayer,

spending nights seeking God

in the star-sprinkled sky.

It’s transcending the messiness,

the turmoil of our lives;

quelling impatience

with the people we love;

opening hearts

to the needy, the other;

sowing sparks of light

in every mundane hour.

If we wish to achieve this central goal of the Torah, indeed of all Judaism, of all religion, if we wish to be holy, we must strive to act and live in this way. Today, and every day.