Holiness of time, place, people
And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying, speak unto all the
congregation of the children of Israel and say to them: “You shall
be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Vayikra XIX:1,2)
Why, with all the myriad of commandments, is there a need for yet another commandment to be holy? What does it add?
Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th century), in a famous comment on this commandment, notes that no system of law can govern every aspect of our behaviour. Even were someone to keep all the commandments, he observes, they might still find a way to behave with excess and to become a naval birshut hatorah – a despicable person within the bounds of the Torah. This law comes to ensure that, even in the realm of the permitted, we should strive to achieve holiness.
But what does striving for holiness actually mean?
Within the book of Vayikra, we find the term Kedusha – holiness – used in relation to three different realms: the realms of time, space and people. Within each of these realms there are two specific subjects to which the term Kedusha is applied:
- Holiness of Time: Shabbat and Festivals
- Holiness of Place: the Temple Mount and the Land of Israel
- Holiness of People: the Kohanim (the Priests) and the the People of Israel.
Rabbi Saul Berman, a contemporary Jewish thinker, has pointed out that there is a significant difference in the nature of the holiness of the two examples in each category. In each case the first example is, in Jewish thought, intrinsically holy, that is, designated as holy by God. The second example in each category, however, only attains holiness when some additional act is done by the Jewish people.
Thus, in the category of time, the Sabbath day is intrinsically holy, since it has been divinely decreed. The dates of the festivals however, are not determined by God but in partnership with man since they are fixed in accordance with the humanly determined calendar. Similarly, in the category of place, the Temple Mount has a divinely ordained and intrinsic holiness, which can never be cancelled. The land of Israel, however, only attains the status of holiness under Jewish law when a majority of the Jewish people is living there. And again, in the category of people: the Priests are regarded by Jewish law as having an intrinsic holiness irrespective of their behaviour, but the Jewish people as a whole are only regarded holy when they act with holiness.
Berman goes on to suggest that holiness can be seen as a series of concentric circles. In the centre is a core of examples of divinely-given holiness: the Sabbath, the Temple Mount and the Priests. Around them are a wider set of examples, which only achieve holiness through a partnership between God and Man: the festivals, the land of Israel and the People of Israel.
And if so, suggests Berman, then there is another, broader circle; one which includes every time, every place and every people. Kedusha in this inspiring approach is actually a form of modelship. It is as if God is teaching the world: Here is an example of time that I, Myself have made holy – the Sabbath. Come let us make the festivals holy together. Now go and make every moment holy. Similarly with space: Says God: I have made the Temple Mount holy. Together let us make the land of Israel holy. Now go and bring holiness to every place. And again with people: Says God: I have made the priests holy. Together let us make a people holy. Now go and make every people holy.
In others’ words
“The Torah portion of this week, Kedoshim, describes the biblical
laws of Kedusha – holiness. The climax of these laws, the peak of
holiness, is remarkable; it is the simple commandment ve’ahavta
le’reacha kamocha, “love your neighbour – because he is as
yourself”. This is the true holiness.”
(Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, Washington Rally for Israel 2002)
On a lighter note
A woman went to Israel on an EL AL flight. When she got off the
plane, she said, “Where’s my dog? Where’s the case?” The EL AL
people finally found the case in the baggage room. They opened it
up… and the dog was dead.
Frightened that the woman would be distraught – and maybe sue
them, the EL AL staff asked their manager what to do.
The manager said, “Look, it’s a cocker spaniel. Next door there’s a
pet shop. Go buy a cocker spaniel the same color and size. She’ll
never know the difference.”
They ran and bought a cocker spaniel and put it in the case. Then
they brought it to the lady, shouting, “We found your dog.”
The lady looked in the carrier and said, “That’s not my dog!”
The manager asked, “How do you know that’s not your dog?”
The lady replied, “My dog is dead. I was taking it to Israel to bury