Parashat K'doshim instructs us to be holy. But aren't we already holy? Yes, but. We activate the holiness within by engaging in acts among people and with God that demonstrate our commitment to living a sacred life. Shabbat is a powerful symbol of the same dynamic, revealing to us how our own decisions not only reveal but make real holiness within us and around us.
This week’s Torah portion opens with a significant challenge and a charge:
דַּבֵּר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).
The next verse then offers two headlines that describe how, more or less, we make ourselves holy:
You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Eternal am your God (Lev. 19:3).
I often teach that this pair of commandments is emblematic of two kinds of mitzvot. Respecting our parents is symbolic of mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro, obligations we have to one another; while observing Shabbat is symbolic of mitzvot bein adam lamakom, obligations we have to the Holy One.
Ethical and ritual. Moral and spiritual. Personal and divine. Each of these arenas is a place to practice holiness.
The Torah here is making an important point. On one level, we know that we’re already holy—we’re created in God’s image, and God makes us holy by choosing us for freedom and love (Deut. 7:6-8). But this teaching, and the predominant message throughout the Torah, is that we become holy through our actions. We activate, in a sense, the holiness that God has planted within us by engaging in deeds of sacred concern for human beings and the divine.
We see this dynamic in Shabbat as well.
Shabbat, like us, is inherently holy: וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת־יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen. 2:3). And yet, the fourth commandment instructs us to remember (Ex. 20:8) or observe (Deut. 5:12) Shabbat לְקַדְּשׁוֹ, in order “to make it holy.” We make Shabbat holy by setting it apart from the rest of the week—in almost circular fashion, we generate Shabbat’s holiness by observing Shabbat’s holiness.
In line with this motif, toward the end of our parashah, God says:
You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Eternal, am holy; and I have distinguished you from the other peoples to be Mine (Lev. 20:26).
God says וָאַבְדִּל: “I have distinguished you.” And so, the midrash teaches: God treasures those who also make havdalah—who distinguish Shabbat from the rest of the week (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 20:8). Havdalah is an example of acts of devotion that show our commitment to spiritual practice; and these actions help us transcend from being, as it were, ordinary, everyday holy people to being people who are holy to God.
All in all, then, holiness is in our hands. The holiness of the world around us is meaningless if we don’t notice it, and the holiness within ourselves remains locked away if we don’t express it through our actions. We are holy for a reason, for a purpose, and each of us is challenged to find—in the long list of mitzvot in and around this week’s Torah portion—ways to connect with the divine spark within, to share it with the world and to live up to our potential as k’doshim la’Adonai¸ as holy to God.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”