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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)

Many rabbinic and scholarly commentators read this Divine injunction— “You shall be holy”—in the conditional/future tense. They understand it to, therefore, mean that sometime down the path, if you follow all the commandments perfectly, if you diligently lead 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 may 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. But God does not speak in vain, does not demand what cannot be attained. There must be a different way of reading this verse.

The Hebrew reveals to us that alternate possibility. Hebrew uses the future tense not only to express an action that will happen in the future but 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 that 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 this verse, adds the suffix chem to Elohim, where chem means “you/your.” So “YHVH Eloheichem” could be translated as “The Eternal Transcendent One manifesting as you.” This, then, 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 that we already are 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 Parashah’s injunction is needed because we are the beings who forget, who identify with our container of flesh and blood, emotions and thoughts, and forget that we are the Essence that animates it, the Divine Breath that breathes into it, gives it life moment to moment, and permeates its every cell. Our mistaken identity causes us to see ourselves as flawed and, therefore, unholy. That 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 your birthright and your inheritance. I pray for a world where all peoples and all nations will remember this truth.