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How to Be Holy: Mishpatim

Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1-24:18


Both this past week and this week’s Torah portions speak of God’s desire for us to be holy. Last week, just before the Decalogue, God said: “… all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me… a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:5-6) This week again God reiterates: “Be a Holy people to Me.” (Exod. 22:30) This Divine injunction seems to be of overriding importance in our entering into this Covenant with God. Yet why is this so critical and, most significantly, is this a fair demand to place on inherently flawed human beings?

Is holiness—that ideal we project upon heroic and saintly figures in all spiritual traditions—an achievable goal, even if we were to follow perfectly the entire 613 Mitzvot that Judaism sets before us as a practice? Isn’t God, by making such a demand of perfection of the fallible beings that we are, de facto abrogating the very Covenant He is wanting to enter into with us? Surely God knows better than to ask what is beyond human reach.

So how do we solve this dilemma? Given the text and God’s imperative, we are left with the only variable: the reader, the translator—the interpreter. What if we first asked ourselves: “Who is reading these words?” If we are able to listen carefully, we will notice that the part of self that is reading God’s words as a command that we be holy, is the striving part of self; the part of self that believes it can be perfect, the aspect of our being which lives in a world of “should” and beats itself up when it doesn’t meet its own expectations. In other words, only the ego is that part of self capable of reading God’s words as a demand made upon it.

But we can read these words at a very different level; a level which assumes that what looks to the ego like God’s commanding, is but a statement, an acknowledgment of Truth. The translation of Exod. 19:5-6 would, then, read: “… I manifest as all of Creation, therefore, as expressions of Me… you are holy.”  That kind of realization, beyond the grasp of the ego, sets the Covenant itself at a different level. We are not to strive to become what we are not, we are to let the holiness of the Divine we are flow through us as unencumbered as possible. The laws of the Torah are not there to coerce us into becoming holy; they are there to help us clear out the obstacles, the resistances, which prevent us from being the clearest channels possible for that Holy-ness to manifest through us, as us. God needs us, as the unique beings that we are, to fulfill such a task.

How do we go about doing just that? Jewish tradition affirms that one of the three pillars of practice that sustains the world is Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving-kindness). Practicing loving-kindness is not an exercise to transform ourselves into something we are not. Practicing loving-kindness is a way to remember the compassionate ones we are; to move beyond the ego-mind which sees us as separate, isolated beings alienated from all others. It is a practice which supports our stepping more fully into God’s Covenant to truly be holy people onto God and to know not just ourselves but every “other” as holy.