“Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.'” — Leviticus 19:2
The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, from Leviticus 16:1—20:27. Acharei Mot means “after the death,” and Kedoshim means “holy.” The Haftorah is from Amos 9:7–15.
The beginning of Leviticus Chapter 19 beckons us to “Be holy.” But what exactly does that mean? How do we become holy?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word for “holy,” kadosh. This word is used in many different contexts within Jewish tradition and law. A marriage is called kedushin. The ritual of making a blessing over a cup of wine before each Sabbath or holiday meal is called kiddush. After a person passes away, Jewish tradition has a son or brother recite a prayer in memory of the deceased called the kaddish. All of these various events share the same basic name. So what do they have in common and what do they have to teach us about holiness?
Let’s look at each of these three rituals. A marriage is about two people separating themselves from every other man and woman in the world and dedicating themselves exclusively to each other. When we say the blessing over wine on special holy days, we are declaring that the particular day is different than all other days and is dedicated exclusively to God and worship. When we recite the prayer for the dead, our goal is to bring the soul, which has been separated from us, closer and closer to God.
All three situations involve separation from one thing in order to come closer to another. And that is the Jewish view of holiness. It’s living a life that is completely and exclusively dedicated to serving God – and abandoning all activities that take away from that purpose.
Another way of saying this is to say that we live our lives “on purpose.” We all know that we have a purpose in life. But sometimes we live life “by accident.” We forget our purpose and spend our time and energy on things that don’t really fit our purpose here on earth. To live “on purpose” means that everything we do in life aligns with our purpose on this planet.
When we eat, it can be a mindless, self-indulgent act, or it can be an act of serving God when we thank Him for the food that gives us the energy to serve Him. When we sleep, it can be a purely physical experience, or we can dedicate our rest for the purpose of preparing our bodies to serve God when we wake. Earning money can be a purely selfish pursuit, or we can use our earnings to further God’s purposes. Everything we do can be service to God.
So how do we become holy? We do what we are already doing – only we designate and dedicate everything we do to the purposes of God.