Rabbi David Walk
How come we often use the word 'holy' in such unholy ways? Why should this term denoting sanctity or piety or godly come to be part of exclamations and, even, pardon me, expletives? I saw one explanation that pairing 'holy' with profane ideas somehow intensifies its impact. To stress our point we break taboos. I find this idea somehow both satisfying and disturbing. It's clear that the term 'holy' carries a lot of power. It both inspires and troubles the listener. Okay, so we can see how the word can be used in provocative ways to jar the audience, but what does the word mean in its purist sense? Lo, and behold this is the perfect time of year to explore that question, because together with last week's Torah reading which featured the words, "Be holy, because, I the Lord God am holy (Leviticus 19:2)', and contained the following injunction, 'You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the Lord, your God...I am the Lord, Who sanctifies you. (20:7-8)', our section of Leviticus is so very much about 'holiness'. This topic continues this week with the famous dictum, 'And they shall not desecrate the holy things of the children of Israel, those that they have set aside for the Lord (22:15).'
The simplest reading of these texts is that we should be 'holy' as an act of emulating our Creator, imitatio Dei. When we attempt to mimic the acts and behavior patterns of God, we achieve a certain holiness. For that reason all of the quoted verses demand that we be holy because God is holy. That's cool, but not totally satisfying because we associate being 'holy' with behavior which is distinctly un-godly, like sexual mores or eating habits. So, Rashi last week commented: for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness (quoting Vayikra Raba 24:4). Rashi pushes an agenda that holiness is connected to controlling certain strong human urges. And this week holiness is associated with, first, the cohanim, then places like the sanctuary, and then in chapter 23, also called parshat hamoadim (section of holidays), with times. How do times and places behave like God?
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik weighed in on this topic a number of times in his many writings and presented an inspiring, yet provocative approach. He defined sanctity as 'the mere attributes of kadosh, kadosh, kadosh denote distance, separation and distinction (Out of the Whirlwind, p. 143)' and as 'the mysterium magnum, ineffable and unattainable, awesome and holy (Worship of the Heart, p. 67).' In other words holiness is connection to something so beyond us, that it is a mystery beyond our feeble powers of intellect to comprehend. So, where