It’s All About Holiness
May 14, 2017
“The Mitzvah” by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
A few years ago a friend and I were preparing to study the book of Leviticus as part of working our way through the Torah readings for the year. We were approaching it with a little dread – mostly because Leviticus seems to be the book that people love to hate.
Genesis is easy to love. It contains brilliant narratives, rich poetics – – the family dramas that comprise most of the book are as contemporary and insightful now as they were when they were first conceived. Exodus tells the tales of the beginnings of the Jewish people. The great movement from slavery to liberation – the story of the formation of a people out of a rag tag group of slaves who complained about everything – – who couldn’t agree with each other about anything – and who gave their leader nothing but grief as they sojourned for 40 years in the wilderness. But very little “happens” in Leviticus. The whole book takes place in one month, and it all occurs at or around Mount Sinai. Leviticus is something of an “an acquired taste” …… and yet, for the careful eye and the willing heart there is much to be learned within her pages.1
Holiness is a major theme in Leviticus. The Source of All Blessing spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation – to the entire community of the children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” No one was left out – the command was addressed to All of Israel – to the resident aliens – – to everyone from the Moses the elder to the wood chopper to the person who carried water – – the young, the elderly – – the infirm – – no one was excluded.
The word shall is an imperative. God does not say you may be holy……or you will be holy at some point in the future – God says “you shall be holy….”
As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out the text does not say “You shall be full of awe because I am holy but rather “You shall be HOLY, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 2
And it is through this command that the Holiness of the Source of All Creation extends itself into creation itself. And Heschel asks: “How does a human being, “dust and ashes,” turn holy?
When the Sacred Unity of All Creation demands holiness of us because we are a part of that Sacred Unity and it is part of us, then we have to answer.
The command to be holy demands a response. We cannot simply say, “That’s nice. Now let’s get on to something else.” “An encounter with the Sacred Unity of All Creation places a demand on our behavior.” Sometimes the obligation is nothing more than a promise to remain silent in God’s Presence…..Other times we are driven to make changes in our (lives and) our actions and to persuade others to join us. We have “heard” something; something has been ‘laid upon us.” We feel, in some way, personally obligated, commanded. To ignore this summons would violate the wonder of the moment and the profound relationship it whispers.3
I want to tell you an imaginative story that comes from Jewish mystical thought. There is a tradition that before creation came into being, there was nothing but The Blessed Wholeness – the most profound and indescribable Unity. Everything was One – nothing was separate from the One. In order to create a space for something else to exist, The Blessed Wholeness contracted in a divine movement called TsimTsum. Then The Holy Blessed ONE poured forth divine emanations of light into containers called vessels. The light was so powerful that the vessels could not contain it and in a cosmic event, the vessels shattered and the pieces scattered. Each shard carried within it a spark of the great light and it was out of the shards that creation came into being. There is no place where the divine light is not – it is embedded in every part of creation. Every aspect of creation “cloaks” a spark of the divine emanation of light. This means that the dark purple eggplant, the richly ripe tomato, the bright green worms that attack the garden, the soil that supports the growth, the gardener who tends the garden – – all are vehicles for the sparks of holiness. The congress who works together – – – or does not – – – the vast military industrial complex, the people who make weapons, the people who deploy and fire them, the victims, intended and unintended – – – -the infant newly entering the world, the elder on his or her way out of this life – – – all of life cloaks the original sparks of the Holy Emanations. This particular tradition tells us that it is our work to uncover the sparks – to reveal them – -to raise the sparks so that creation becomes whole again, fully expressing The Sacred Unity of All Creation.
It is the witness of 3000 years of Jewish and Christian and Islamic tradition, at least, that the holiness demanded of us is not some high and lofty and unreachable goal. Indeed, the first requirements that follow the command in Leviticus are very mundane things –like honoring and respecting our parents – -like keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest and restoration – – things that are well within the reach of all of us. Abraham Heschel coined the phrase “Theology of the Common Deed” which challenges us to understand that holiness is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life- Human deeds and acts are the stuff of holiness. He goes so far as to say that “the deed is the source of holiness”.4 What we do – -and how we do it – matters.
A few years ago my yoga teacher gave me a lovely hand painted card and invited me to put it on my mirror where I would see it every day. On the card was the statement “I am a holy being.” It is not so easy to say that about ourselves. I’m guessing that most of us do not dwell in a
continual awareness of ourselves as holy beings – – we probably do not readily think in terms of being a holy congregation either. And it follows that we probably do not consciously view one another as holy beings. If we do not understand ourselves as holy, then we are not apt to think of our lives, individual and corporate, as an exercise in holiness.
This is where the mystical and the metaphorical notions of creation and holiness weave their way into the mundane and the concrete.
Back in the 18th century, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Societies, organized a group of seminary students into what was called “The Holy Club.” Their discipline was to rise at some ungodly hour – 4 AM, if memory serves –for prayer and to seek guidance for the day. Their spiritual discipline consisted of visiting the sick and people who were in prison, of meeting with other small groups to inquire after the state of their souls, of making offerings of money so that the hungry could be fed. Because they were very disciplined and orderly and methodical about their prayer and their pursuits, they were derided as “Methodists” and the name stuck. But the point is that their notion of holiness was concrete – it involved deeds and actions that helped to restore some element of wholeness to the lives of the people with whom they ministered. They heard the command “You shall be holy…”
There is really not much glamor in holiness. Almost the entire book of Deuteronomy and all of Leviticus have the focus of providing guidance for a rag tag bunch of ex-slaves to find and claim and own their own holiness. There are commands about helping your neighbor – even if you don’t like her; about pulling an ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath when no work is supposed to be done, about paying a laborer at the end of the work day so he can feed his family. Out of those some 613 commands come the pattern for our own tort laws today – practical considerations for how to live together in community as a holy people – – but the notion of the holiness involved in that has taken a back seat.
So –what I am suggesting this morning is that as individuals and as a community of faith, we might begin to listen in a more profound way to the command to be holy –to take it more seriously as a guiding principle for our lives – -remembering that the command was given to the entire community –no one was excluded – -remembering that the mystical tradition affirms that all of creation enshrouds the divine light.
So – – as Heschel asks “How does a human being, dust and ashes , turn holy?”
The first part of an answer – and this is only one answer – is that we begin by taking it as fact that we are holy beings – – that might be the first step in our response to the command to be holy – -simply to recognize that we already are, indeed, holy beings – – that we, in our bouncy, young and energetic bodies, in our creaky, achy, uncooperative bodies – – we carry the holy emanation of light from the very beginning. Just doing this much –just recognizing this – begins the process of “raising the sparks” – – of bringing scattered holy sparks of creation closer to wholeness.
So –our holiness is a given – – so why all the laws and commandments???? We tend to forget our original blessing. And as Kushner says “Holiness demands a response.” And as Heschel seems to argue, we remember our holiness and reconnect with it through our deeds and actions. So –we find ourselves working for peace and social justice in the world. We gather food for people who are hungry. We fight for more just laws for people who have been pushed to the fringes of society. All very earthy and practical manifestations of holiness. – – Holiness moves in all the circles of our lives. As holy beings, we have the power to make everything we do or think or touch holy. So – here are a few a “what ifs” for us to consider: What would happen to our life in community if I were to experience the holiness in arranging the chairs, just so, in preparation for meeting after worship on Sunday morning. What if I were to feel my own holiness by doing the mundane work of cleaning up after an event? What if I were consciously aware that I was bringing another spark of holiness to this or that committee simply by saying yes to serving. What if I were willing to accept the responsibility for taking my holiness into the home of another person who has truly forgotten their own – – perhaps in the deed –the act – raising a little bit of the spark of their holiness –thereby contributing to the wholeness of creation. What if I were in a state of mind that recognized that every other person that I encounter has the power to ignite that spark of holiness in me – – and that I have the power to do the same with them?
Practical holiness. It isn’t glamorous – There are no spotlights – it is just us – saying “Yes” to the ancient command –the ancient call to BE holy because holiness is all there is at the center of it all.
On the outer surface of things, the world is an extremely dangerous and frightening place – and we live in very edgy times. There is a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov, a great Hasidic master. It goes something like this: We often find ourselves in times of darkness when we don’t know where to turn or what to do. Wholeness, the right and the good are obliterated in dark clouds of doubt and confusion. The first thing to do is to recognize it is a holy thing to sit in the darkness. To simply be in it. To let the darkness be the darkness. But our sitting in it is not to be utterly passive. While in the darkness, we are to be watchful for the sparks of divine light wherever and when ever they might appear in the darkness. The second phase of coming into balance is to focus on those sparks of light and expand them so that they begin to become connected. And the third phase is to let them expand until there is nothing but light and the darkness is filled with light.
As I thought about the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, I could not help but ponder the immediate drama that is unfolding in our national life today. I wonder what it would be like for our political leaders and all the parties who deliberate – – what would it be like to sit in the darkness and confess that we really don’t know what to do – – to confess to ourselves and one another that the darkness has never been darker or more filled with fear and confusion. I wonder if we could sit together in the darkness and begin to watch for the sparks of holiness hidden in the darkness. Together might we add our own sparks to the hidden ones –might we raise a few more so that light began to appear in the darkness. And – -if we were willing to sit long enough, might we amass enough light to displace the darkness with holiness and begin to find our direction again?
A fantasy perhaps and yet………..
The command to holiness has never been more necessary or urgent. We have to be reminded from time to time. It seems imperative that we listen to the command and respond. Art Green makes the command more accessible: “Recognize that you are holy! Despite the great differences between you, each of you has God within you.” This is where we begin – -recognizing and honoring the sparks that WE are in the darkness – – reaching out to each other so that the sparks can connect and expand. We have a role to play in becoming the light that illumines the darkness. The healing and wholeness of creation is the responsibility of those who respond to what God commands – – You shall be holy, for I, the Creative Wholeness, the unity of all things, I am holy. You are part of me and I am part of you. When Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me – – and you are in me and I am in you – it is his reminder to us that we are holy beings with a responsibility to be holy in the world. So……Let’s get on with it.
1 Rabbi Joseph Rook Rapport, d’var torah on Vayikra Reformjudaism.com
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel I Asked For Wonder – A Spiritual Anthology Samuel Dresner,ed. Crossroad, New York 2003 p.86
3 Lawrence Kushner The Book of Words – Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk Jewish Lights Woodstock, Vermont,1993 p91.
4 Heschel Man’s Quest For God –Studies In Prayer and Symbolism, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1954. P.109