The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Nisan 22, 5771/April 26, 2011

"Be Holy!"
(Leviticus 19:2)

"And HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, 'Be holy, for I, HaShem, your G-d, am holy.'" (Leviticus 19:1-2) Be Holy! It sounds so easy. It sounds so hard. Just what makes this sound-bite of a commandment both so tantalizing and so intimidating? The answer can be found in the words that immediately follow: "For I, HaShem, your G-d, am holy." How are we to grasp this truth? How are we to reckon with its implications?

G-d is telling us directly that we can be holy because He is holy. And not merely that we can be holy but that we should be holy, we must be holy! And yet Torah does nothing to shed light on the nature of G-d's intrinsic holiness, nor can or should Torah even attempt such a thing. The great sage Maimonides teaches us that we cannot qualify G-d by assigning Him attributes. We can only know G-d by what He is not. Yet G-d Himself tells us that He is holy. Where do we begin?

Who among us hasn't at least one time in his life reached the conclusion that "I've got to make some changes. I've got to open my heart to what is true. I must create an approach to the Divine." Yet Torah admonishes us: "You shall not turn to the worthless idols, nor shall you make molten deities for yourselves. I am HaShem, your G-d." (ibid 19:4) We shouldn't "get religion?" Is this what Torah is telling us?

We see how daunting and intimidating even the idea of a "personal" holiness can be. Is Torah teasing us with some kind of blind man's bluff? But, at the same time, what makes "Be holy!" so tantalizing, so clearly within reach?

If we study carefully the words, "Be holy, for I, HaShem, your G-d, am holy," we begin to perceive an underlying logic that is utterly axiomatic: G-d is saying to us that we already are holy because He is holy. If I were to say, "Have blue eyes because I have blue eyes," it wouldn't work. There is no logic there. There is no relationship between you and me via the color of my eyes. But when G-d says "Be holy, for I, HaShem, your G-d, am holy," we therefore are holy! And all that is left for us to discover and all that is left for Torah to reveal to us is not what we need to do in order to become holy, but what we need to do in order to increase and fulfill our own inherent potential for holiness. There is no alchemy here. Torah doesn't propose to turn dross human matter into something that it is not. On the contrary, Torah is insisting, demanding, imploring and beseeching us to become that which we already are: Holy! And this we do by attaching ourselves to G-d through the word of His Torah, by heeding His commandments and living life as He prescribes it.

It is not the first time that Torah invokes our own potential for holiness. Long before, at Mount Sinai, G-d told Israel, "And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:6) But it is particularly rewarding that, as the book of Leviticus begins to wind down, Torah sees fit to repeatedly "remind" us of own inherent capacity for holiness. Leviticus, after all, is by and large, a rule book for the kohanim, the Temple priests, and its verses are filled with instructions concerning the Temple offerings, issues of purity and impurity, and many matters that are of direct concern to the kohanim, and to them alone. And yet, the book of Leviticus is an open book for all of us to study and to learn. Even those particular matters that will only ever be dealt with by the kohanim are for us to understand and for our Torah sages to uncover and determine their meaning on all levels of Torah exegesis. Torah seems to be telling us that the special, particularized, unique and exclusive holiness which is the domain of the Temple priests, is ultimately, in practice and in thought, intended only to aid any of us and all of us who are part of Israel to increase our own holiness and thereby draw nearer to G-d. This, after all, is the raison d'Ítre for the Holy Temple: To increase our holiness and thereby invite G-d's Divine presence, the holy Shechinah into our world. "Be holy, for I, HaShem, your G-d, am holy."

Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven stir it up in this post-Pesach return to the air waves, and the rabbi keeps us on the edge of our seats with a long rambling tale about a half a horse. Having walked through the Sea of Reeds, our hosts are determined not to look back towards Egypt. Hopefully, we will all utilize the spiritual tools we are presented with for personal, national, and global growth towards the ultimate freedom of the Torah, during these days of the counting of the Omer.

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