Rabbi David Walk
Growing up in the 50's and 60's, I was part of that TV generation. We didn't yet appreciate how the idiot box was destroying our brain cells. TV was our reference point for everything, when I'd get a drink from a public fountain, I thought of Red Skelton's inability to get water from the bubbler in the park or if I went to a bank I thought of Jack Benny going into his subterranean vault, or perhaps my Mom OB"M would ask me to get something from her purse and I'd feel like Art Linkletter. But, of course, it didn't stop there. It included religion. My reference for sanctity was Robin's use of the term 'holy' to describe any phenomenon encountered by the Caped Duo. From blackouts to bankruptcies, hoaxes to hyperdermics, every crisis was 'holy'. But what did the Boy Wonder mean when he said 'holy'? I think he meant 'intense'. Robin was describing to Batman that proximate threat was all consuming. This peril would eclipse everything else in their universe, until it was defused. Is this a legitimate use for 'holy'? Let's see.
This week's Torah reading has the famous mitzva called kiddush hashem ('sanctifying God's name'), we usually understand this to be the obligation of martyrdom when confronted with the choice of death or committing one of the three cardinal sins, idolatry, murder or arayot (understood as adultery or incest). I'm not concerned right now with the details of this obligation of surrendering one's life, whether it's mandatory or voluntary or whether it's only in public. I'm interested in trying to decipher what do we mean by sanctifying, as in 'I shall be sanctified amidst the Children of Israel, I am the Lord Who sanctifies you (Vayikra 22:32).'
Of course, this discussion began last week with the famous demand, 'Be Holy!' (kedoshim t'hiyu, 19:2). What does God want from us when we're commanded to be holy or sanctified? The most famous interpretation is Rashi's, who explains that it means, 'Separate yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness (19:2).' This interpretation that 'holy' means 'separate' (perushim t'hiyu) is agreed upon by Targum Yonatan. The Ramban expands this concept to include separating from any negative behavior, not just promiscuity. He avers that holiness requires us to refrain from being naval b'reshut haTorah, disgusting even when doing permitted acts, when we do them in a reprehensible manner. However, that's not the classic meaning of the term. Holy usually is explained as 'dedicated', as when one sanctifies an object or animal for the Holy Temple. That's called l'hakdish.
I'm not really satisfied with either definition for our circumstance. The Sfat Emet comes closer to an idea which I think inspires us, when he characterizes this sanctification as sublimating oneself (bitul l'klal Yisrael) to the Jewish people. The Rebbe explains that last week the command 'be holy' was given during hakhel, a general gathering of the entire Jewish nation. This week the demand to sanctify God's name is 'amidst the Children of Israel'. This sublime sanctity can only be achieved with and through the community, for the Torah says 'the entirety of the community is total kedusha (Bamidbar 16:3)'. The Rebbe adds that Jews and Judaism are invulnerable when so unified (Parshat Kedoshim, 1883).
The Rebbe describes the means of achieving kedusha, but it's the Malbim (Reb Meir Leibish ben Yechiel Michal Wisser, 1809-1879) who, I believe, truly defines the phenomenon. Sanctity really does mean 'separate', but it means to be separate from natural reality. It means to be ethereal, outside the natural realm, otherworldly, wondrous and even miraculous. That's okay for God, but what about us? That's where the Malbim quotes Abba Shaul (2nd Century CE) from the Midrash (Sifra Kedoshim), who says that we achieve kedusha by emulating God. Since we were created in the tselem or image of God (Breishit 1:26) we can, in some limited way, imitate God. But how? We can't create worlds or perform miracles. However, we can control our animal urges. Our fellow animals just follow their instincts and appetites. Whenever we control our wants and desires to conform to Torah, mitzvot and a calling higher than nature, we have accessed our Divine image and achieved kedusha.
Kedusha is the ability to emerge from natural limitations through an exercise of our free will. That's how we imitate our Maker and draw upon our Divine image and connect to higher realms.
In this way, we can either sanctify or, God forbid, desecrate God's Name in the world. We can inspire the world to greater emulation of God and fulfillment of Divine potential by exhibiting this kind of meta-natural behavior. This doesn't have to be martyrdom. It can be living by Torah precepts publicly and modestly. Mitzvot performed with kindness and grace can have a powerful and profound effect on others, and, therefore, the world. The great roadblock to this boon for Creation is a combination of apathy and timidity. We have to believe that our Torah system of relationships with God and humanity is more than just a pathway to my personal salvation. I strongly believe that it's a scheme through which my behavior can be a catalyst for change in the world around me. Whether those changes are constructive or destructive is totally up to me.
Our verse informs us that we can desecrate or sanctify God in our world. I don't believe that we impact God in any way. I do believe that by increasing the kedusha we make the world a better place. And vice versa. This improvement can be achieved by living the moral life, being a good example. So, even though rabbis have discussed for centuries the principle of martyrdom, the best method of achieving this betterment of society is more about how we live, than how we die. I guess Robin was right, 'holy' is pretty intense.