What is holiness?
It’s a slippery quality to define.
In the Torah we first hear of holiness in chapter two of Genesis, when God declares the seventh day, the Sabbath day, kadosh, holy. A special time. A time apart from other days. A time to do things differently.
From there it’s applied to many other things: to the whole and various parts of the Children of Israel; to the altar built in the wilderness, the sacrifices offered upon the altar and the many tools, furnishings and vessels associated with it; the priests and their garments; other special days; and so on.
But what does “holy” mean?
At its most basic, it means better or higher than ordinary, extraordinary. For those of us who are on speaking terms with God, to be holy means to draw near to God, to walk in God’s ways.
But even for those of us who struggle with God language or whose theology (or atheology) simply doesn’t allow for this sort of a relationship with God, we can relate to the idea of something special, different, elevated, sacred; worthy of veneration. Holy.
The dedication of a new Torah scroll ranks among the holiest moments in the life of a Jewish congregation. Why? First, taking a new scroll into our arms, into our ark, we recall Sinai, the original matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, that mythical moment (according to tradition, we all were there) when we became a people, a community of faith, committed to God’s covenant. Second, there is no object more sacred in Jewish tradition than a Torah scroll. We treat the physical artifact with reverence, almost as a living being: dressing it elaborately; rising in its presence; reading from it with ceremony; even, at times, kissing, hugging, or dancing with it.
But perhaps most importantly, we encounter holiness when we dedicate a new scroll because the Torah itself tells us how and what it means to be holy.
Along the way to telling the story of the origins of Judaism and the Jewish people, the Torah also records our earliest brushes with holiness: in both time and space; in our relationships, whether with human beings, other critters, the natural world, God, or our own being; in our behavior at work and at play, at home and abroad.
The Torah gives us lots of specific rules and examples: honor your parents; take care of your body; keep fair weights and measures and pay your workers on time; welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked. This is what God wants. This is what it means to be holy. Taken together, though, the message is clearly larger than the sum of these discrete parts. Torah teaches us that it is possible to find holiness not only on Sabbaths and feast days, in worship or ceremony, but in every moment, in everything we do.
Given that we are imperfect human beings, few if any of us will ever achieve this ideal. Most of us, from time to time, get distracted, discouraged, defensive, or just plain bored. We have our abject moments, when we succumb to the pain and chaos of the world, and question life’s meaning. Even then, the Torah reminds any who will listen: the potential for holiness is everywhere, and always.
Even in Auschwitz, stories survive of men and women finding ways to lift one another’s spirits, to transcend their surroundings, to achieve holiness. Should it surprise us, then, to find the same in Oklahoma and Boston; after hurricanes, earthquakes, and mass shootings; in execution chambers and in war; not to mention in supermarket queues and at stoplights? A seed of holiness lies at the heart of every single moment of our lives, whether terrible, wonderful or mundane. We are God’s catalysts. We must choose to plant and nurture those seeds. The Torah—and life—teaches us this.
The dedication of our congregation’s second Torah scroll, this special and joyous moment, reminds us of our talent and obligation—not only at such peak occasions, but with every heartbeat and in every season of our lives, from Shabbat to Shabbat, from one trash collection day to the next, from family to strangers, and everyone, everything, every time in between—to seek and do holiness. To be holy.