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The Pursuit of Holiness

Kedoshim: Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy. [Lev. 19:1-2]

Most rabbinic and scholarly commentaries read the Divine injunction in the conditional/future tense. “You shall be holy”—the implication being that sometime down the path if you perfectly follow all the commandments, if you practice diligently leading the highest moral life, if you curb your “yetzer ha-ra” (evil inclination,) and develop the virtues of your “yetzer ha-tov” (good inclination) and, most importantly, do God’s Will incessantly, then, and only then, you might be called “holy.” Holiness, according to this near-universal interpretation, is something to be achieved, something to strive for, something to transform oneself into.

The problem with such an understanding is that it forever postpones being holy. No one, not even the greatest of sages, can ever attain such a state of being. This version of spiritual perfection remains forever out of reach. God’s injunction can never be realized. There must be a different way of reading this verse.

The Hebrew reveals to us that alternate possibility. Hebrew uses the future tense to express both an action that will happen in the future, or to mark an imperative. Instead of reading “Kedoshim Tih’yu” as “You shall/will be holy,” the Hebrew allows us to translate it as: “Be holy!” The sentence then continues, “ki kadosh Ani—for I am holy,” and concludes “YHVH Eloheichem—The Eternal One, your God.” The mystics understand YHVH as referring to the Divine Transcendent Masculine, the non-finite aspect of divinity that never enters the realm of space and time. Elohim, on the other hand, represents the aspect of divinity which manifests as all space and time, as all forms and creatures, as Creation itself: The One manifesting as the many. Eloheichem, the Hebrew word used in our verse adds the suffix “chem” to “Elohim,” where “chem” means “you/your.” “YHVH Eloheichem” might be translated as “The Eternal Transcendent One manifesting as you.” Now, then, this is how our mystics might read this verse:

“Be holy, for I, the Eternal One manifesting as you, am holy.”

The injunction is not about a future time when, after endless striving, we will be holy. Rather it is God calling us to know ourselves to already be holy. We, as manifestations of the Most Holy cannot be anything but holy. Do we not read in the Book of Numbers: “The entire community is holy and YHVH is within them.”? [Num. 16:3] Yet our injunction is needed because we are the beings who forget, who identify with the container of flesh and blood, emotions and thoughts, and forget that we are the Essence that animates it, the Divine Breath that was breathed into it to give it life and that permeates its every cell; the Awareness in which it arises. This mistaken identity causes us to see ourselves as flawed and, therefore, unholy. It is the cause of our suffering. All suffering, in fact, stems from this alienating case of mistaken identity. You who are reading these words, listen deeply to the words of Torah: You are holy. You and every being, every life-form, every thing, this entire planet and the entirety of the Universe, are holy. You are holy right now. You have always been holy, and you will always be holy. You were born holy and you will die holy. You cannot be less holy or more holy, regardless of your actions past, present or future. You cannot become holy, nor can holiness be taken away from you. Holiness is our birthright and our inheritance. I pray for a world where all nations will remember this truth.