By Date

Dear Friends,

Commenting on this week’s Torah portion Kedoshim, Rabbi Bradley Artson observes,

With Parashat Kedoshim, we begin what the rabbis of the Midrash recognized as “the section dealing with holiness.”… Characteristic of this portion of scripture is the repeated injunction, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” I can think of no more sublime religious imperative. Yet its lofty elegance and moral rigor notwithstanding, it also raises a problem for us, as it did for our ancestors. In repeating the instruction to be holy, the Torah tells us what to be without telling us what that attribute entails. What exactly does being “holy” mean?

Of course, throughout our history, the rabbis have sought to answer this question of what it means to be holy.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, (to whom authorship of the Zohar, the seminal work of Jewish mysticism, is ascribed) links holiness to a sense of justice, quoting the prophet Isaiah that “the Lord of hosts is exalted through justice.”

Rabbi Judah understands “holiness” as a sign of the distinctiveness of our community and our covenant with God and one another. To him, we embody holiness when we stand as a people separate and apart from others.

And, based on the quote, “My children, as I am separate, so you be separate; as I am holy, so you be holy,” Rabbi Levi understands holiness as speaking to the unique relationship between the Jewish people and God.

But it is Rabbi Huna’s explanation of what it means to be holy that speaks most powerfully to me. He notes,

If a person feels weighed down by transgression, what action will merit life? If accustomed to read one page of Scripture, let that person read. If accustomed to study one chapter of Mishnah, study two chapters.

But what if that person was not accustomed to read Scripture or to study Mishnah at all? What then should that person do to merit life? Such a one should get an appointment as a communal leader or as an administrator of tzedakah and will thereby merit life.

While study is one path toward achieving holiness, Rabbi Huna makes explicit the fact that another path of equal if not greater validity, is the path of action. He goes on to note that when we perpetuate the values and learning of Jewish institutions, thereby perpetuating the values and learning of our ancient heritage, we bring holiness into this world. And when we volunteer our time to serve on committees, boards, and organizations that keep the Jewish people coherent and vibrant we bring holiness into this world.

Rabbi Huna’s understanding of holiness could go one step further. For while study, tzedakah and communal involvement help ensure the strength and future of our community, to my mind it is where those actions lead that is the true embodiment of holiness. For each of those actions remind us of our obligations to one another and by so doing, encourage and enable us to act in ways that bring wholeness and healing to our broken world. And it is through those actions, small and large alike, that we make God’s divinity manifest in our world.

When we offer a kind word to someone who is hurting we add to the holiness in our world.

When we help those who are hungry to eat, we add to the holiness of our world.

When we bring dignity to those who have been overlooked by society, we bring holiness into our world.

When we see a social ill and rather than merely complain about it on social media roll up our sleeves and work to address that issue, we bring holiness into our world.

Our actions will never solve all the ills that surround us—the world is too broken for that—but that is not the point. For, as we read in Pirke Avot,

“It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to avoid it.”  (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 2:16)

When we engage in even the smallest of acts of kindness we make the world a bit better and in the process, we add to the holiness we all long to achieve.

Imagine the impact we could have as a community if, this weekend, we all set some time aside to do a random act of kindness. The world won’t change but our corner of it will be a bit better, and a bit holier, because of our actions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen

Shammai used to say: make your study of the Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance. (Pirke Avot 1:15)

Cantor Moses:

Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust–Instruments of Hope and Liberation: James A. Grymes

I have read a lot of Holocaust books over the years. Some have been first hand accounts from survivors, others have been novels based on the history of the time, still others have been academic books that have sought to make sense of the chaos and hatred, all have made an impact on me. This book, however, and the organization that has grown out of it, was simply unforgettable. It is an examination of how music saved the souls of many and, in some cases, their lives as well. It is based on one man’s mission to restore and repair violins that survived the Holocaust, sometimes with those who played them and sadly sometimes they are all that remain of a family.

Rabbi Klein:

People Love Dead Jews: Dara Horn

I love everything she writes, but this book stepped away from her normal (amazing) fiction and presents a series of essays which explore why people seem so comfortable revering and memorializing Jews who’ve died, but not advocating for and celebrating those who are alive today. I thought this book was deeply provocative and insightful – an important read for living as a Jew in today’s world.


Who Wrote the Bible? : Dr Richard Elliott Friedman

The first Jewish academic course I took in college was a scholarly exploration of the origins of the TaNaCH. It looked at the social and cultural context that gave rise to the foundational text of our people and, in the process, gave me a deeper appreciation for the richness and complexity of our tradition.

In Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman takes this scholarly approach and presents it in an accessible manner. It explains current thinking regarding the various textual traditions that arose in antiquity and, at a later date, were compiled into the text we now study. It is interesting, compelling and an important read for anyone who has ever wondered how our glorious tradition came to be.