Holiness is Hard

Posted on April 29, 2021

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

The word kadosh, or Holy, is an interesting word. According to the dictionary, it can mean several things:

  1. Dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.
  2. (of a person) devoted to the service of God
  3. Morally and spiritually excellent

It is also related to the word “whole”, and so there is a dimension of completeness or fullness – in Hebrew, shalom or sh’leimut.

Last week in Kedoshim, we read the Holiness Code – our charge to be holy because God is holy, and the list of some of the key ways in which we are to live our lives to that best end. For those who remember studying this with me several years ago, the Holiness Code mirrors the Ten Commandments, using other words. In Emor we learn more about the ways in which we are to live a holy life, a life of spiritual and ritual purity, and how we offer our deepest gratitude to God for all that God has given us.

We learn about appropriate marriages for the Kohanim, that they may maintain spiritual purity in their families and households; that they may serve as exemplars of the highest standard of sacred living. And then there is a verse which challenges our contemporary understanding–really all the work we have done as a holy community towards inclusion–when the Torah states that a Kohen with a physical deformity may not serve in the Temple. There are many commentaries about this verse, and I suppose the idea of wholeness comes into play here, but it is a very challenging verse to read.

After describing some aspects of the Mishkan,  the Torah goes on to list the Holy Observances–the Festivals, the Counting of the Omer, and Shabbat. These are opportunities for us to approach God fully, offering the best of what we received from the earth or through hard work and good fortune, showing pure joy and gratitude for all that is ours.

As I reflect on the past year, I think about how my own sense of gratitude and completeness has shifted. It has become so much easier to be grateful for everything, especially the little things, since life changed last Spring. It has become easier to feel more complete, more at peace, since then. As a result, my spiritual life has changed as well. I feel closer to God, I have a renewed sense of appreciation for community, and I can pray more honestly. This has all been so freeing. The moment gratitude and spirituality took a greater role in my life, I suddenly became so much more at peace with life and with the world around me. 

Holiness is hard. It takes work to live a holy life. But that is our challenge as Jews. We are to be the standard bearers of living lives bound by ethics, mitzvot, and laws, all of which ultimately bring a dimension of holiness to our lives. As we read the book of Vayikra, I invite you to join me in this quest for holiness. Pray more. Practice gratitude. Meditate. Come to shul. Light Shabbat candles and have dinner with people you love. Each of these things, when compounded, takes us one step closer to a life of holiness.