Holiness is aspirational


Rabbi Lizz Goldstein | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a Scottish Torah authority, calls this week’s Torah portion, and especially Leviticus 19:16 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”), a “burst of sunlight in a tangled forest.” I think of it as the burst of sunshine following a long winter.

In this parshah, we are commanded to be holy as Hashem is holy. The laws that follow seem to give structure to that commandment. But many of them are still followed by the refrain, “I am Hashem, your God,” implying the reinforcement of that first commandment of this parashah: following these laws will make us holy as Hashem is holy.


Zornberg, in her new book, “The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus,” points out the aspirational intent of this commandment. We cannot truly be as holy as the Divine, but it is in the effort toward holiness that righteousness lives. Weaving together early 20th-century American philosophers with the 19th- century mitnagid Ha’amek Davar, she frames holiness as something that requires active choice and that enlivens us.

“If the laws do not have this enlivening effect,” Zornberg says, “then they should be read otherwise… Kedusha can be understood as the aspiration toward such vitality. A kind of discomfort is its baseline: a restlessness about all given situations.”

Along with the COVID cases themselves, the debate around public health measures also continues to rage. The question is: How do we balance keeping ourselves and each other safe while maintaining community, social lives and mental well-being?

There are certainly risk assessments that must be done when considering how to gather a minyan, with or without oneg and kiddush, how to celebrate our Jewish holidays, how to teach our children whose attention spans cannot handle any more Zoom classrooms.

It seems to me a similar balancing act as what Zornberg sees in this week’s parshah. Which laws merely protect life in the most literal way, and which give life its fullest potential? And the tension between them and the aspiration to maintain both for all in our community — that is where we find holiness.

I know so many are feeling restless, and desire more activity in their lives. I also know many are still frightened, ill, mourning or chronically disabled because of this virus. The public health landscape is not yet what we wish it to be, but we can aspire toward it, just as we aspire toward the Divine path.

Rabbi Lizz Goldstein serves Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge.

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