D’var Torah: Holiness toward others fans spark of the Divine


Lisa Mandel

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh


God spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God, am holy.”

This, to me, is the essence of our heritage. The simple beauty of these two verses declare that God wants Moses to address ALL people. Furthermore, the entire community has the ability to be holy like God. Some suggest that holiness is achieved only when we all work together to improve the lot of others and society. It is through this cooperation that we embrace holiness.

The Torah portion Kedoshim encompasses Leviticus, chapters 19 and 20. This portion is included in what was termed the “Holiness Code” by German theologian August Klosterman in 1877. It includes chapters 17-26, and other parts of the Torah. This code may date to the seventh century B.C.E. It is addressed to all, not simply the priests. It is a part of daily living.

What does it mean to be holy? We say it means to be unique or set apart. And how does one imitate the Eternal One? We were, after all, created in the Divine image. This is a reminder that all of humanity possess sparks of the Divine. Our words and actions, our very beings, are filled with Divine substance and possibilities. Imagine what our world would resemble if every morning we believed this and treated one another in this manner?

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Our sages voiced opinions on what it means to be holy. Philo believed that “holiness toward God and justice toward men usually go together.”

Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”

If you know what hurts yourself, you have empathy for others and what may bring them pain. This notion moves us from an immediate circle of care to a greater circumference of concern.

Nachmanides said that holiness is to “practice temperance and moderation even if it is permitted.” Sforno said it is to “imitate God as far as that is possible.” We can do so by nurturing our relationships.

And to be holy includes the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Ibn Ezra declared, “One is responsible to love other human beings because the One God has created all of them.”

Maimonides understood the challenges of loving another: “The Torah does not command the extent of our love but rather the genuine character of it … all the things that you would want others to do for you, do for your brothers and sisters.”

Dag Hammarskjöld, former secretary-general of the United Nations, wrote: “In our time, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” These ritual and ethical mandates are the map to a world of justice and harmony. The Midrash teaches that “most of the essential laws of the Torah can be derived from Leviticus 19.”

Holiness is not defined for us. Rather, our actions mandate this sanctity. The directive to live in this way is a high standard. It is a way of life and a handbook for our actions.

Rabbi Leo Baeck said, “The great commandment is to live.” The question is how we live. Do our words and actions reflect our prayers? Living is an action. It is not passive.

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote the following passage:

“There is holiness when we strive to be true to the best we know.

“There is holiness when we are kind to someone who cannot possibly be of service to us.

“There is holiness when we promote family harmony.

“There is holiness when we forget what divides us and remember what unites us.

“There is holiness when we are willing to be laughed at for what we believe in.

“There is holiness when we love — truly, honestly, and unselfishly.

“There is holiness when we remember the lonely and bring cheer into a dark corner.

“There is holiness when we share — our bread, our ideas, our enthusiasms.

“There is holiness when we gather to pray to [God] who gave us the power to pray.”

Psychologist Eric Fromm believed that “the love for my own self is inseparably connected with the love for any other being … primarily giving not receiving.”

And Pinchas Peli, an Israeli modern Orthodox rabbi, said, “The real test is to love those who are not as good or loveable in our own eyes.”

We show acts of love in so many ways. The simplest gestures invite the Eternal Being into our presence. How will you bring a spark of the Divine to your world? What actions reflect the God in whose image you were created? What does it mean to be holy? I pray you will join me in this journey of love and wholeness.

Temple Emanuel Senior Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.