The Kedusha Secret
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
Parashas Kedoshim opens up with the quintessential Jewish maxim, be holy. Sounds good. Sounds religious:
“Hashem spoke to Moshe (Moses), saying: Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your G-d.” (VaYikra-Leviticus 19:1-2)
But then the examples start flowing in:
“You shall not steal, you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie one man to his fellow… You shall not cheat your fellow…a worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning… You shall not curse the deaf, and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind… With righteousness shall you judge your fellow… You shall not be gossipmonger among your people, you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed… You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people…” (ibid 11-18)
All culminating in the famous verse beseeching us to “love your fellow as yourself” (ibid).
Holiness in Torah means things like paying workers on time and avoiding gossip. But it’s kind of funny. Why are there no Jewish ashrams or convents? You would think it would be easier to avoid gossip on a mountaintop than in a busy office.
The answer is that it would be easier. And it would entirely miss the point.
Getting Away From It All
Today Yitzchak Fanger is a rabbi wearing a suit and a black fedora. A few years ago, though, he looked a little different. They didn’t wear suits in the Dalai Lama’s ashram. Think long orange robes, clean shaven heads, and wooden necklaces instead. His months-long speech fast in a solitary hut in the backwater woods of Northern India broke when he suddenly started blurting out the Hebrew Torah verses he had last heard at his own bar mitzvah decades earlier. No one was more shocked than he was.
It took several more strangely Judaic wake-up calls, including a close brush with death, before Yitzchak hopped a plane back to Israel. He was sitting in an Arachim class the next day.
Parashas Kedoshim deals with what it means to be kadosh. But our “holy” is not like anyone else’s “holy”. If Hashem wanted us to build wooden huts and get away from it all, He would tell us as much. Instead, He tells us to avoid lying and gossiping and withholding salaries. Why? Because He expects us to contend with these challenges.
Jewish holiness means facing the water cooler and winning – no gossip. Sure, it’s easier to avoid hurting your wife’s feelings if you don’t have a wife, but Torah calls marriage kidushin – “to make holy”. The Torah extols again and again the holiness of the Jewish home and family.
If running away to a mountaintop would be missing the point, what is the point? If attaining kedusha means doing mundane things like changing diapers then what is this thing called kedusha anyway?
The answer to the mysterious definition of the word kedusha is hidden in the very verse commanding it: “You shall be holy, for holy am I.”
Holy am I: It’s easy to gloss over that one. Sure G-d is holy. But if you stop and think about it for a minute, you crack the code: to figure out what “holy” looks like, just watch G-d. All we need is a copy of G-d’s schedule. What’s on His blackberry?
Good thing He synced us everything at Sinai. Our sages explain, “Just as He is merciful, so you be merciful. Just as He is gracious, so you be gracious.” In His love-letter to the universe, G-d explains that no matter what events may look or feel like on the surface, He is always making things happen for our benefit.
Just to illustrate the point, you know the question, “What do you get the guy who has everything?” Well, what about a Being Who is infinite, omnipotent, and omnipresent? What do you get Him? Needless to say that He doesn’t need anything. He created the concept of “need”. To say that He’s got it all in His pocket would just be another one of those terrifically absurd understatements you can’t help falling into every time you try to talk about Him. But multiply it by a power of infinity and you’re going in the right direction.
G-d doesn’t need anything. All He “wants” is the opportunity to give. And that was precisely why He made you. (And the rest of the world.) His schedule? He spends all day, every day, taking care of us.
If you wanted to choreograph a dance expressing the idea “You shall be holy, for holy am I,” it would probably look like “You shall not steal… You shall not cheat your fellow…a worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning…” because you’re busy getting down to business with “love your fellow as yourself”.
To a Jew, real life is exactly what holiness looks like. Real life lived like G-d.
Love is a Verb
Rabbi Leib Kelemen explains, “Closeness in the physical world is measured by inches. Closeness in the spiritual world is measured by similarity.” The more similar to G-d you become, the closer you grow to Him.
Coming close to G-d just doesn’t happen by spending your life alone on a mountaintop. It may feel spiritual, but real spirituality is in the diaper changing, in the taking care of others. Love lived as a verb. Strange but true.
It’s not that religious Jews go to work, and since we happen to be going to work anyway, Torah teaches us how to enhance the experience. If He had said He wanted us to go hang out in pretzel position all day, we’d be there.
Rather, Torah goes ahead and turns the tables on everything. Turns out that spiritual materialism – gimme, gimme, gimme in a spiritual sense – is exactly the same as physical materialism. Neither is really about coming close to Him. Both are all about the smallest and most selfish version of a person.
We face the challenges of the workplace in order to take care of our families – like Hashem. We confront the potential quicksand of physical life in order to transform our relationship with it from one of self-absorption to one of joyous altruism – like Hashem. We get married and have children not because of the good feelings these people give us but because we have chosen to dedicate our lives to giving to them – like Hashem.
If Torah is G-d’s curriculum for us, then the world is our workbook. Every object and moment is a tool, a key.
But to unlock the kedusha you don’t have to travel to India or become an ascetic. Sometimes the most unexpected hiding place is the one that is the most obvious. The big secret about kedusha is that it is right in front of you all the time. In potential, that is. All it takes is your willingness to try to trust Him, serve Him, connect with Him, emulate Him...
After all, we are never lost. He’s been here all along. He’s here right now. Right here.