There are many questions that I want to ask God face to face. Some clustered in theology, others in theodicy. Some have to do with His/Her sense of humor (often biting and dry, although quite creative). Some question evil, pain and suffering. At times I simply want to check in to make sure that at the end of the day God is doing OK. Then there are those moments when I want to squint my eyes in dismay and ask, “What exactly were you thinking when you said...?”
This is how I feel about the opening verses of our Torah portion: “And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel and say to them ‘You shall be holy for I, your God, am holy [kadosh].’”
The comparison and expectation are what throw me off balance. The demand is that since God is holy we, too, should be holy. From where do we derive this ability? What is the weight of juxtaposing the abilities of God versus our human potential? Is this a valid and reasonable demand?
t is Reb Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1797), the youngest of the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who picks up on this double meaning in the word l’maala and goes about explaining God’s answer in two opposite ways.
L’maala as “above,” explains the Chernobyl rebbe, alludes to the impact that human beings have on God’s presence in the world. It is through our actions that God is, so to speak, elevated to a higher and greater presence. It is in this reading that we are taught that God’s manifestation in the world and mode of revelation is channeled through our actions. We may be so bold to say that if we are seeking to see God manifest in this world, it is possible by virtue of the quality and consciousness of our lives. Yes, this image would beg God’s dependency on each and every one of us. To a certain extent, this interpretation flips the opening verse on its face — God is holy because we are holy! It is in our hands to enhance God’s holiness and to bring forth His holiness into the world
But l’maala as “beyond” projects the complete opposite stance. Here, in the realm of “beyond” God’s holiness is “beyond” our holiness — it is qualitatively different. Therefore, the Chernobyl rebbe explains, it was God alone that came into the darkness of Egypt and redeemed us. He says that any of God’s divine messengers that would have descended into Egypt would have been sucked in, as a moth drawn to light, and if it weren’t for God’s personal intervention we would all still be there.
We all have our vices that we know are stronger than we are. There are challenges or temptations that pull us beyond our ability to resist. This is our mystical Mitzrayim (Egypt). The place that is tzar (narrow), where we are stripped from our freedom to overcome the pull or drive beckoning at every step we take. This is where the Almighty is called upon to redeem us. This is where the midrash says, “No, we can’t be holy like God is holy, for God’s holiness is beyond our holiness.” There are situations in life where salvation can come from God, and from God alone.
There are two faces presented to our holiness.
The first is the holiness of engagement — one that demands of us to take a stand in the world and create a better world than the one we were born in to. Our Creator and Redeemer is setting this challenge in our hands. God created the world and bequeathed it to us in order to perfect it; to complete it; to shape a world that is whole and holy; to perfect and complete God; to make God’s manifestation in the world whole and holy.
The second is a holiness of resignation — a holiness that humbles us. It is one that reminds us of our limitations. It is a holiness that is born from our ability to recognize our shortcomings and to step aside, allowing God to clear the path for us, for the thicket is too great for us to cut through.
There are moments in life that cry out for action. There are moments in life that arrest our response. There are moments in life that yearn for clarity.
Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.
Holy, holy, holy.
Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.
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