April 23, 2021
“You shall be Holy.” These words from Gd in Leviticus 19:2 set the stage for the second Torah portion of our double dose this week in Achrei-Mot & Kedoshim. Apropos, the title of this second portion is in fact derived from the same root as “holy” (Kadosh). But what does it mean to be “holy”? This question has been debated and argued for millennia and has, unfortunately, and even ironically, been the cause of many holy wars.
There is a Jewish perspective (which I wholeheartedly embrace) that presents holiness (Kedushah) as the act of separating oneself from the mundane and ordinary acts of daily life, which would certainly include separating oneself from any acts of hatred, criminal, or negative intent.
The idea that simply living one’s life by not doing bad things, in theory, could define a person as being a “good person”. However, the difference between being “good” and “holy” is that not doing bad things isn’t sufficient in trying to better the world with our unique Gd-given talents and strengths. In fact, our Jewish tradition obligates us to “better the world” and try to perfect its imperfections. These are the actions that separate oneself from the ordinary and begin to elevate our actions to levels of holiness and sanctity.
For example, politely passing someone in the street or hallway is “good”. But to smile or even nod one’s head and acknowledge that person’s presence raises the behavior a notch on the ladder of holiness. So too when we light candles on Shabbat. Lighting the candles is certainly an act of holiness, but how much higher do we raise the stakes if we use nicer candles and candlesticks and dress-up for the occasion? Sure, it requires more effort, more time to plan, maybe even more expensive to purchase, yet that is exactly the separation that we understand from this week’s Torah portion.
To be holy requires someone to take action, to consciously decide to not go through life as a passive bystander. Nobel peace prize winner, Elie Wiesel, shared that the opposite of love was not hatred, but indifference. and even went a step further in his acceptance speech by encouraging people to, “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Our Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio (HMMSA) educates its visitors to be “upstanders”, not bystanders. This simple nuance differentiates the ability to take action as the first step in climbing the ladder of holiness.
The Jewish Federation of San Antonio has been able to serve our community since 1927 because of the specific actions of those who came before us. JFSA has supported and sustained our San Antonio Jewish community specifically because of the generosity and dedication of community members who chose to take action and step forward.
This week, as we read our foundational text on being a holy nation, let us think about the actions we can each take. How can we shift from simply living our lives to raising our levels of everyday holiness?
The Jewish Federation of San Antonio has many wonderful opportunities for you to take action and get involved through the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Women’s Philanthropy, Jewish Community Relations Council, PJ Library & PJ Our Way, and Young Adult Division. We are also a resource to connect you to local synagogues, beneficiary agencies, and whatever else you may need. However you decide to take action, the Jewish Federation is…