“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” (Vayikra 19:1-2)
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
“And you shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine.” (Vayikra 20:26)
וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי
When G-d says “kedoshim tehiu” and “veheyitem li kedoshim”—“you shall be holy” and “you shall be holy to Me”—why does He place us in the plural? It is not only because He is addressing the individuals who comprise the nation. G-d is pluralizing our holiness.
Holiness is relational. We can’t know it by ourselves. It is a compact between two beings to elevate and refine one another. The commandments in the Torah are the minimal expectation G-d places upon us, and in relationship with the divine we gauge our intensification of what we create together. This is the intimacy of soul dialogue.
Holiness demands distinct laws sanctifying reciprocity, each to each. This is why kiddushin, the first act of marriage, establishes spousal exclusivity. This is also why reciting the formulaic blessing of kiddush entails drinking from the wine cup that is forbidden to be discarded. G-d the Almighty is holy in Oneness, and so G-d’s unique unity is bequeathed unto us and breathed into us, a divine pluralizing within the whole.
Jewish holiness is not vague and amorphous but is found in specifics, concrete and accessible: Eretz Israel, lashon kodesh … In Eretz Israel, we cannot pick a tree’s fruit during the first three years of the tree’s life, and we must leave Israel’s land fallow every seven years for its own Shabbat (shmita) year. Hebrew, the holy language, has no curse words. Vulgarity is interdict. After all, this is G-d’s tongue. Holiness in ritual involves distinct laws to separate the object being blessed from all other objects. Bread and wine merit their own prayers and their own special treatment. We see this idea carried forward in English—our word “sacred” derives from the Latin sacrare, meaning to set apart in ceremony.
We have 248 positive commandments. Honour your father and mother, fear your mother and father, and 246 more. This number corresponds to the bones and organs in the human body. Through our skeletal makeup, we are commanded to bear the imprint of holiness. When our bodies enact G-d’s commandments, the Divine Image glows inside us. We are also instructed by the 365 negative commandments—what not to do, how not to treat people. We mustn’t gossip or talebear (Vayikra 19:16). Holiness is the opposite of nonchalance.
Together the 613 commandments given to the people at Mt. Sinai are called taryag mitzvot. G-d revealed them to our nation communally for each of us to decide individually how to respond. There before Revelation on the first Shavuot, G-d says to our people: if you actualize yourself as a holy people (goy kadosh) … then you will be my chosen (segulati) (Shemot 19:6). Would Israel keep the mitzvot and remain a distinct and distinguished people? Then the Everlasting Presence will remain imprinted upon us and realized within our terra sancta. This: the (w)ho(l)ly whole of it.
We relive the Revelation and embody Shavuot whenever we perform the mitzvot. We are the chosen people and yet we are also choosers. Each person presents their performance of the mitzvot back to G-d. How to proceed from Sinai is our choice. Chag Shavuot Sameach—Karen and Rabbi Ronnie Cahana.