Holiness is something intangible, yet something for which we all strive. Within Judaism, there are two kinds of holiness: Things that are not necessarily holy, but have a derived holiness because of their function, and things that are holy in and of themselves, or in other words, are inherently holy. God is inherently holy, because he has set Himself apart from His creation. He is not part of it. Holy means to separate or be separate from what is common or profane, so God is holy, the world is common or profane, separate from Him. In Judaism, there are only three things that are holy in and of themselves, A Sefer Torah, megillot and other scrolls of scripture; Tefillin; and a Mezuzah Parchment. The reason these three are considered holy are because they are the very words of God written on parchment by a scribe as has been done for thousands of years. The holiness does not extend to printed or Xeroxed copies or to translations because they are only copies of holy things, but not the holy things themselves.
On the other hand, things can have a derived holiness. An armoire may be a piece of furniture used for clothing or a television, but if it is used to house a Torah scroll as an Ark, it’s usage has been elevated, and is holy because of its usage to house a Torah Scroll. I’ve known people who make a xerox copy of a Mezuzah parchment to save money and put it in a case and hammer it to their door post thinking they have fulfilled a mitzvah, but in actuality they have only put a copy of something holy on their door frame, but not the holy thing itself. I have pointed out to them that for under $35.00 they can perform a mitzvah and buy a real parchment. It can’t just be the money, and being cheap is no mitzvah at all, so why not just do the mitzvah and put a real parchment in their mezuzah case. If I know someone has put a Xeroxed parchment in a mezuzah case, I won’t touch it as I go through their door, because its only a sham. Holiness always involves the real thing, not just a copy of what is real.
The holiness of people is also derived, but has to involve the real thing. All too often, people are content to have or be a copy of what is holy, but don’t bother striving to have or become the real thing. Humans are not innately holy. Holiness is something we strive toward. The question is, how can our lives be transformed from what is common or profane, into something holy? Part of the answer is analogous to objects. The armoire I mentioned earlier may be just a piece of furniture, but putting it to a sacred use elevates its status to something holy, because of its application. When people seek to perform holy functions, it can have an elevating effect on the person, or in other words, it changes the person.
When someone goes out and feeds the poor with no ulterior motive, it is a holy thing. Doing acts of kindness like giving someone a ride or doing shopping for a shut in fall into this category as well. But these acts in and of themselves can have little or no effect on a person. It may help them feel better about themselves but they are still the same person they were before. Doing good things alone does not change or transform a person. Their lives are not made holy because they did a good thing. The same is true of people who go into ministry. Performing a holy occupation does not make a person holy. A holy life needs to be there before you do the job because doing the job won’t create it inside you. This is an important issue because the Torah teaches, “You are to be holy, because the Lord your God is Holy, and I have set you apart from the Peoples to be Mine.”
Holiness is not an option for those on the religious plan. It’s a command of God to his people. The answer to performing this mitzvah lies in the last half of the sentence. “I have set you apart from the people’s to be mine.” I’ve heard teachers comment that this means we are to simply be different from the world’s way of behaving. That may have supported their agenda of separateness from the world, but I don’t think that’s what the command was really getting at. Most of the people I see are peculiar enough that they don’t need a command to tell them to be peculiar. The command goes much deeper than that. The verse says, ” You are to be holy, because the Lord your God is holy,” It involves being both set apart from the Peoples, and being set apart TOWARD God. It’s not an automatic thing. You can be set apart from the Peoples and just be weird without being set apart toward God. Both parts of the Mitzvah are cognizant choices. I have to choose to set myself apart from the Peoples rather than blend in or assimilate into their lifestyle and values, and I have to choose to be holy towards God. What does that mean and how do I do it?
When I choose to be holy toward God, I am consciously focusing myself on Him and drawing near to him. When I deliberately take a common action and draw near to God through it, I have transformed something common into something holy. When I eat food, I can sit down and “dig in,” like my dogs do when I put their food in their bowls. They start immediately giving no thought to me, or anything else. When we eat without stopping to give thanks, we are like that as well; basically we are behaving like animals. When we stop and remember the Creator before we eat, and bless God who made and gave us our food, we have taken advantage of an opportunity to draw near to God and have transformed that moment from something profane into something holy. The attitude of our heart is what makes the difference. Friday night is Friday night; but if I light candles, and bless God, bless my children, Bless God with wine and challah, I have transformed Friday night into Shabbat. When the commandments teach that we are to be holy, it means we are to be transforming our lives from a profane existence into a holy life, one mitzvah at a time, one blessing at a time. What does it take to transform a moment into holiness? It takes us.