“You shall be holy”

This week’s Torah portion instructs: “kedoshim tiheyu — you shall be holy,” and as I was thinking about that phrase recently, I realized two things about it that I hadn’t ever realized before.

First, I realized that phrase is neither an affirmation nor a compliment.

It does not say… you ARE holy.

It says: you SHALL BE holy.

In other words, the holiness expected of us by our covenant with Adonai, our G-d, is not a holiness that we possess just because we exist. Rather, it is a holiness we were created with the ability to become. As Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains:

[O]ur instinct is not for holiness but for self-preservation. Our reptilian brain comes with a single set of encoded instructions: eat or be eaten; kill or be killed. This is not a moral judgment; there is no morality at the level of the reptilian brain. It is simply an observation. Morality comes with the neocortex, the higher brain, and to impose morality on the lower brain is as difficult and dangerous as wrestling an alligator. Just as an alligator squirms to slip out of our arms, so the reptilian brain twists and turns to convince us that feeding its endless hungers is just and good.

Shapiro, Rami. Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained at 24 (SkyLight Paths Publishing 2004).

So, that phrase – you shall be holy – is intended to inspire and motivate us to become more than just the reptilian brains that drive us to act always and only to meet our own selfish needs, regardless of the cost to others.

Second, I realized that, as written in Hebrew, “Kedoshim tiheyu” … is not singular. We are not to become holy just as individuals.

Kedoshim tiheyu” is PLURAL, because we are to become a holy community.

Why? Because true holiness – the kind that gives us the power to transform our world – is only possible as a community!

Imagine if one person decides to tame his reptilian brain and begin acting from his neocortex, but then he gets dropped into a pond full of people acting like alligators. That one person has very few choices: he can get “eaten alive” by the selfish people around him, he can leave the pond, or he can stop using his neocortex and just be a selfish alligator.

But if that same one person who decided to act from his neocortex finds himself dropped into a pond full of people who all are striving to act from their neocortexes, in ways that are just and moral and kind, then that one person will thrive and, over time, he will find it easier to ignore the call of his reptilian brain to be selfish. He will find himself more willing to engage in acts of kindness, justice, love, and holiness, and he will become more willing, and more able, to give of his time, of his possessions, and of his Self.

This is why, in various places, Torah assures us that if our community follows the commandments, we will be able to lie down in peace and have no fear, we will always have food, and our debts will be forgiven . . . because, if we truly follow the commandments, then we will not have put those around us in fear, and we will have ensured that others have food, and we will have forgiven others. Then, when we find ourselves in need, others will help us, not just because it is required by the commandments, but because unselfishly helping others will have become their “instinctual response.”

This “system” that our ancestors gave to us … including this “CALL TO HOLINESS” … it won’t work if I am selfish and always looking out for only myself and my family, and it won’t work if I come to understand that the people around me are willing to fight to protect only the interests important to them and their family members. If I am always for me and you are always for you, then we are not a Holy Community … instead, we are nothing more than a bunch of reptiles fighting over scarce resources.

But if we all agree to “fight the good fight” against our reptilian brains, then we increase the likelihood that we will interact with one another in a kind, moral, and just manner. And when others see us interact as Holy People, they may be inspired to fight the good fight against their selfish, reptilian, lower brains . . . not only when engaging with us, but perhaps also when engaging with others in our community. And then, Baruch Hashem, our individual and collective holiness will begin to grow exponentially, not only because more “holy acts” are occurring, but because the “air” in our community will become permeated with an expectation of holiness … of respect, of love, of kindness, and of compassion.

And, when we achieve that kind of holiness, my friends, that is when G-d will build a sanctuary in our midst and walk among us.

kedoshim tiheyu . . . you shall be holy . . .

I cannot reach my highest potential for holiness alone.

You cannot reach your highest potential for holiness alone.

But together we have the ability to create a community that is more holy than any of us could ever begin to imagine . . .

Shabbat shalom, jen

This post is dedicated to The Honorable Evan Goodman who, through his willingness to engage in honest, compassionate, and respectful dialogue so that we (despite our divergent interests) might find a common path forward, showed me what it meant to be part of a holy community.

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