Kedusha: Reaching Out For Holiness

Yom Kippur 5777
Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

On Erev Rosh HaShana, I spoke about the power of the voice and noted that the voice can be used to denigrate or elevate. In the intervening days, profanity has continued to pollute our environment. It seems as if we have explored all aspects of the profane – so maybe it is time to dwell on the sacred – the holy.

The reading of the Holiness code today during the Torah reading begins with the command: Kidoshim tihi’u ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloyhachem… You shall be holy because I the Eternal your God am Holy. But what follows is a list of behaviors leading to right actions. Is that all it takes to be holy? In a way, the text suggests that if we “color inside the lines” we can find holiness. Perhaps it requires more than just coloring inside the lines.

When I was a first year student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, I had an opportunity, along with the rest of my class, to travel to Sinai. These were the times prior to the closure of the Sinai desert. My class-mates and I traveled through the desert, snorkeling at stops along the coast and then turned in to travel deep into the desert. Our goal was that place some believe to be Mount Sinai. We arrived at our base camp in the middle of one afternoon, a place called Santa Catherina, a monastery at the foot of Sinai. I will not relate to you the story of our arduous climb up that rock, nor the glorious view from its summit. Instead, I must tell you of an incident late that afternoon, on a tour of the monastery grounds. We poked our heads in rooms, looked at relics and lazily checked out the grounds, tired from the long jeep ride through the dusty desert. At one point, as we turned the corner in an outside corridor of the monastery, our guide pointed to a pathetic little plant, with eye shaped leaves, more bear than lush, and proclaimed, “That is the burning bush!”

After a protracted bout of laughter, we moved on; though, some hours later, I was compelled to return and stare at the plant. Is this what Moses saw? Of course it can’t be; but even if it was, if this was what Moses saw, wouldn’t he laugh too? I thought for a moment, and it hit me — its appearance doesn’t matter, what matters is how we see it. I looked again, and it was holy, perfect in all of its mundane, ordinary characteristics. I could make it holy by perceiving of it as holy.

When two people in love stand underneath a huppah, they declare their love for one another by a statement: Haray At Mikudeshet Li — Behold, you are made holy for me. Holiness, in Judaism does not mean that which is off-limits and outside of human reach. It means anything that is elevated, marked off as different from the rest. Therefore, the two lovers say, I perceive you as elevated, different from the rest. In my eyes, you are special. No one else will I look at the way I look at you; will I touch the way I touch you; will I dream about, the way I dream about you. We elevate the ones we love — make them holy; we do this by the way that we look at them and treat them.

One of our great Jewish philosophers said that the difference between human beings and animals is that humans have the power of speech — in Hebrew, we are Chai Midabaer, speaking living creatures. In our popular culture, many say that the difference between humans and animals is that humans have the power to dream and to hope. I say that the difference between humans and animals is that we have the power to discern holiness in the world — we can separate that which is holy from that which is mundane.

Yet, it is that talent that we have let wither, we have not honed our ability to see the kedusha, the holiness, in our lives, and that may be one of the problems that weakens our sense of religious awe. That problem impacts in two ways: first, when we lose our ability to recognize the holiness around us, our own religious practices and observances become empty — devoid of meaning. Second, when we lose our ability to recognize the holiness in our relationships with others, our congregations, our communities, our homes and our families are imperiled.

Our problem stems from the notion that in every system –a family, a movement, a synagogue — there must always be two ongoing goals in the forefront of our minds. The first is the goal of purpose — for us the purpose is kedusha, of bringing the notion of holiness into our lives. The second goal is the preservation of the system. For the Jewish family, for the synagogue, and all other systems, our raison d’etre is to bring the sacred into our lives. The family exists in order to perpetuate human existence. The synagogue exists to further the teaching of Torah — the instruction manual for making holy time and space.

The first goal, as I just expressed is the goal of kedusha. But that cannot exist without the pursuit of the second goal, the goal of preservation. In the family, the house must be cared for, the meals must be prepared, the clothing cleaned, the bills paid. In the synagogue, programs and events must be planned, rooms must be set up, bills must be paid, funds must be raised. All of these activities are necessary for each of these systems to exist and continue to function. Inattention to any of these details will cause the inevitable breakdown of the system. Yet, in point of fact, we have become far too concerned with the second goal and not concerned enough with the first. When we ignore the goal of kedusha we lose our sense of Jewishness in the most real and important sense. For our families to exist, and ultimately for our synagogues to exist, we need to reinvest ourselves with capturing that elusive notion of holiness, it is our purpose.

There is a character in our literature that captured the imagination of our rabbis. His name was Honi HaMa’ageyl, Honi the Circle-maker. Honi was a very mystical man, one who it was said, could work magic. One year, it had not rained after the Holydays, it still had not rained after Succot and it was getting on towards Hanukkah. In Jewish law, if it doesn’t rain in this season, the crops will not come up and there will be a disaster in the land. The elders of the community came to Honi and said, “Honi, you must pray on our behalf, please make God send us rain!” Honi started to pray, and nothing happened. Again, the crowd approached Honi and pleaded with him. Honi went outside and took a stick and in the dirt, drew a big circle and stood inside the circle. He called out, “Ribono shel Olam, your children have turned to me because they believe that I am a member of your house. I swear by your great name that I will not move from here until you show mercy to your children.” And it rained, and rained. (T.B. Ta’anit 23a)

The circle was the key to Honi’s magic. Honi drew the circle on the ground — within the circle was kedusha. Inside the circle, Honi’s eyes were attuned to the holiness of life, the sacred became accessible. Outside of the circle was everything that was normal, and mundane. Honi placed himself within the circle and excluded himself from the mundane world around him. His eyes were now opened to God’s existence, and he was better able to communicate with God — God heard and was moved.

We must learn to make circles. And if not circles, then at least lines – and color within these lines. We must learn to look at the world and separate the holy from the mundane. When we lift up the kiddush cup on Friday evening, the wine in the cup does not change once the blessing is said, the time and space change. The sense of holiness should fill the room, the wine enlivens our hearts as we say — NOW, SHABBAT BEGINS! What exists outside is of little importance. Those within the circle are holy, the room takes on a holy quality — outside fades for the time being.

Our home must become a mikdash me’at , a smaller version of the Mikdash the great Temple — the place of holiness. Likewise, our synagogues must truly serve as the present day model of the Mikdash. If people in this place look at each other differently, at this space differently, if they behave differently, then we can truly live out the command the rings out from today’s Torah reading, “Kidoshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh ani adonai elohaychem –You shall be holy, for I your God, am holy.”

But it never seems so simple. We shy away from holiness — we ignore those things and activities that can bring holiness into our lives. Parents rush through the house calling to children, “Not now!” Friends say to each other, “I’ll talk to you later.” Friday night can come, and we find little time to make Shabbat. More people come to the synagogue for a bourbon tasting event (not that there is wrong with that…) than for Torah study.

But it takes vigilance in the pursuit of the sacred. Our Talmud says, “Make a fence around the Torah.” In the Song of Songs, there is a phrase, “…fenced with lilies….” The Midrash Pesikta Rabbati (10:3) joins these two phrases and says that this means that the life of Israel is fenced with the precepts of the Torah. How good it would be if our synagogues, our homes and our families could feel as if they were fenced with lilies — that we could draw our circles and fence them with lilies to make a haven from the mundane pressures of the world. We can restore this sense to people. If we can help each other to see the holiness in the world, and fine-tune our abilities to discern the sacred; then we will able to draw our circles around those we love.

The impact would be tremendous. In this fast paced society, where people run past each other, where parents run past children, children run past parents, friend runs past friend, partners breeze from meeting to meeting and the home becomes a place to drop off the laundry, imagine the effect of someone saying, “This home, this place, this family is special — elevated. In this place, we slow down.” Imagine how good it would feel that when entering this sanctuary, all outside pressures would cease. This place would truly be a Bayt El — a house of God.

In our celebration of Shabbat, if we pay attention at all, most of our attention focuses on Kabbalat Shabbat — the Friday evening welcoming of the Sabbath Queen. Little attention is given to the end of Shabbat — the beautiful ceremony called Havdalah. And sine this dayof Yom Kippur is also called Shabbat Shabbaton – the Shabbat of Shabbats, we will end this day as our children lead us in Havdalah. You all know the ceremony: a twisted candle, spice box and wine used to bid farewell to our neshama yetayra (our additional soul reserved for Shabbat). Havdalah, meaning separation, helps us to separate ourselves from the joys of Shabbat and holiness and redirect ourselves to the work-a-day week and the mundane – even profane — world. But Havdalah can also help us understand circle-making.

The final blessing of Havdalah blesses God for life’s dichotomies: light and darkness, toil and rest, holy and profane. I think we must retranslate the prayer — for it is not God that is hamavdeel beyn kodesh l’chol (the one who separates holy from profane) — we do. That is what makes us different: we can discern the kedusha in the world, if we but open our eyes. We are the ones who are able to notice the difference between light and dark, toil and rest, that which is holy and that which is normal. We must live our lives, not waiting for holiness to slap us in the face, but ready to look at the most mundane thing and see its sacred qualities, just like Moses looking at a pathetic plant and seeing a burning bush that was not consumed.

We must teach people to open their eyes, to see the world through new and different eyes, maybe even Jewish eyes, so that they will once again dedicate themselves to the goal of kedusha — and by doing so, our synagogues will be strengthened, and so will our faith. And with the sense of kedusha, we can drive away the profanity that pollutes our day to day life. And if that profanity seems all-encompassing, then we can draw circles or lines and stand within, as a shelter – and a reminder that life can be more – that life and the world and the people around us can be more – can be elevated – can be holy.

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