Holiness – Rosh Hashanah 5758 (1997)

As we begin these High Holy Days, it is worth considering what it means to be “Holy.” After all, Torah commands us, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

Most of us would say that being holy means being special, being sacred, being good in some spiritual sense. During these High Holy Days, we seek that sense of being special and sacred, even though what that means differs greatly for each of us. For some, the organ plays and they are transported to a holy place. For others, it’s reciting the Kaddish. Still others find just walking into the sanctuary to be a holy moment.

But what does “Holy” really mean? In English, it comes from the world “whole” — together, one, unified. In the English sense, to be holy means to become one with God, to become immersed in the spiritual world.

Unfortunately, that is the English sense of the word, not the Hebrew sense. And as Jews we are commanded to be holy in Hebrew, not English. So what does it mean for us to be holy?

The Hebrew word for “holiness” is Kadosh, whose root means to set apart, to separate, to be distinct. The Jewish sense of holiness is certainly to be special, but in a very different way: to be separated from that which is not holy, or the mundane. This has some very important implications for what we must do when we are trying to be holy.

First of all, it means that we can be like God, but we do not join with God; instead, we are given the opportunity to have a relationship with God, through prayer, struggle, and even argument. We can thank God, we can praise God, or we can say, “You’re wrong on that one, God” — and God will listen, and sometimes (as the stories of Abraham teach us, for example), God will agree with us.

Part of what makes these High Holy Days holy is their separateness, the way they are set apart from the rest of the year, and the way in which they set us apart from our largely Christian neighbors. It is a bittersweet privilege to be Jewish, and we feel it strongly when we are separated from the mainstream. For as people, we want to belong, not be apart.

Now, if the Jewish sense of holiness was simply separation then living the llife of a hermit would probably be the holiest thing we could do: hiding from the world in some cave, we could achieve the ultimate separation. But Judaism has a second part to being holy:

In that same section of Leviticus where we are told to be holy, we read “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In fact, the Torah reminds us over and over that we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

From this, it seems clear that Judaism demands that we be connected with the rest of the world, not just other Jews. But beyond simply reminding us of our own heritage as strangers, why would this be so?

At one level, there is the “call for social justice:” strangers are often beset upon, and we were once strangers, so we must remember to treat the downtrodden fairly. This is certainly true, but I believe there is more to the message.

Outsiders bring a special value to every social interaction, every family, and every culture. It is the outsider who, unfamiliar with the customs of the group, notices things that others have stopped noticing: the way that everyone at work gets restless just before lunch, the way that Grandpa strokes his beard when he doesn’t know the answer, the way that other outsiders are treated in a restaurant. Some things are visible only to outsiders, and their ability to see what is invisible to us is priceless.

Many of us know what it’s like to have someone new join an office: for a while, they are able to see things, and comment on things, and even promote some changes that before were unthinkable. But sooner or later they are absorbed — inducted — into the office system, and their special power is lost.

The same thing happens when someone new joins our family, whether it’s a new spouse, or a new child, or a newly-discovered relative. They shake things up, and suddenly nothing is quite as smooth, making life a little uncomfortable for us. We find ourselves changing in ways we hadn’t expected, seeing things that we hadn’t seen — or didn’t want to see. We do everything we can to make them comfortable, not only for their sake, but also (as it turns out) for ours: we want things to go “back to normal.”

Outsiders are most valuable when they are outside enough to retain that fresh viewpoint, but inside enough so that we’ll listen to them and think about what they tell us. It is the outsider who brings vitality to a group, who brings the possibility of change — but only so long as they are different.




We must welcome the outsider, not simply for their own sake, but for ours — to keep our families alive and growing, our community aware and responsive, our religion vital and strong. And we, as the eternal outsiders — the Jews — must struggle to find that special relationship of both “outside” and “inside” with the world. For the world’s sake, we must allow ourselves to be enough of a part of things to be listened to, to be taken seriously. But we must remain enough apart that we can still see what others cannot see, because the have become one with it: complacent with the everyday, innoculated against the injustices, thick-skinned against the pain.

Of course, it is hard to be outside of society — as people we need to belong, to be a member of a group, not isolated from others. And so we must give each other the comfort that comese from belonging to a tradition as rich and ancient as Judaism, a tradition which teaches us to be a community, both a part of and apart from the world. It is a difficult balance to strike, but Judaism — and the company of other Jews — can help us find it. Then we shall be Holy, as God is Holy, separate and special, different and valued, detached but caring, just but compassionate.


© 1997-2007, James F. Brulé