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Kodashim. May 11, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

One of the most difficult concepts in Judaism is Holiness. The Hebrew word for “holy” is “Kodesh”. Like all Hebrew words, it has a three-letter root that carries the meaning of “separate”; something that is holy is separate from other mundane or ordinary things. It gives us a hint of what Holiness is all about; it is not mundane or ordinary, but it still leaves us wondering what is the essence of holiness.

We know that God is holy; the Torah tells us many times that God is holy. But is also asks us to be holy as well. In fact, the reason we are commanded to be holy is because God is holy. We are being commanded to be just like God. But how can we, human beings made of flesh and blood be holy like the infinite God? We know so little about the nature of God that it is hard to apply God’s holiness into our lives. Therefore, we look to see what God does and learn about holiness from how God acts in this world.

In Devarim, we are commanded to “follow the Lord your God”. The Talmud asks the obvious question, “What does this mean? Is it possible for a mortal to follow God’s presence? The verse therefore means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One, praised be God. As God, in the case of Adam and Eve, clothed the naked, so too we should clothe the naked. As God, in the case of Abraham, visited the sick, so too, we should visit the sick. As God, in the case of Abraham comforted those who mourn, so too, we should comfort those who mourn. As God, in the case of Moses, buried the dead, so to, we should bury the dead.” The Talmud teaches us that through our actions we can be holy like God.

These lessons are critically important because they give us a guide as to how to act in this world. Our actions cannot be only about our own self-interest. Sure, we can earn a living, develop our skills, create a good life for ourselves and our families, but that can’t be all we do in life. The sage Hillel taught that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” We do need to look after our own and our family’s needs. But Hillel goes on to say that “If I am only for myself, what good am I?” Life is not just about getting ahead anyway we can. We are not allowed to step on other people when we are on our way up in the world. In addition to our own selfish needs, we need to unselfishly look out for the needs of others. This is what it means to be holy like God.

And yet, we feel that there something more to being holy than looking out for others. We get a sense of this when we do acts of kindness to others and see their appreciation for all that we have done.   We not only feel good for the person we have helped, who is so grateful for our efforts, but we feel a personal satisfaction about reaching beyond our own needs to help lift another. It is not about feeling happy that we have helped another person, that could even be a selfish feeling. Rather there is a sense that a circle has been completed and we have done our part to help make the world a little better than it was before. It is a feeling of humility, that even though what we accomplished was a small thing for us, we stand in awe in how big it becomes in helping improve a small corner of the universe.

God has created holiness on our behalf as well. We are told to keep Shabbat as an island of holy time. We are told that Israel is a holy people. The Torah teaches us that the Mishkan, the place our ancestors worshiped, was a holy place. And that the Hebrew Language is a holy tongue. What can we learn from these four holy items in our world?

Shabbat is a day of rest. What makes the day holy is not what we do but what we don’t do. We don’t work, it is a day of rest. It is less about what we do with our hands and more about how we use our minds. We turn off the part that has us thinking about how we can make a difference in the world and just let life unfold. We use our senses to see, hear and feel the world around us, and to accept it just as it is. On Shabbat all we have to be is present.

The Mishkan, the Temple, was our holy place. To be sure, there was a lot of activity that took place there. The Kohanim sacrificed animals, the Levites sang songs of praise and assisted the Kohanim in their duties. The people came to offer prayers, to eat and to be close to God. But in the center of all this activity, there was one place, the most holy place, the Holy of Holies, and in that space, nothing happened. No one came and did anything there. Only once a year the High Priest would enter and offer words of prayer. Our most holy place was a place of peace.

If Hebrew is a holy language, then what is the most holy word in that language. Without question, it would be the name of God. But the strange thing about God’s name is that it is never pronounced. It consists only of vowels that have no sound without consonants. It is close to the sound of our breath, a sound that is not really a sound. In fact, the name of God is really a verb, which, according to the rules of language, is impossible. A name must be a noun, never a verb. A verb is about action, but this verb/name is the strangest of verbs, it is a form of the verb for “being”. To “be” is one verb that has the least amount of action in it. You don’t have to do anything to just “be”.

What this tells us is that to be a holy people, is certainly about what we do, but it is also about what we don’t do. Part of being holy is to be in silence. To do nothing. To rest. To contemplate our actions, our feelings and God. Somewhere in all the things we are commanded to do, is also a commandment to stop doing and to think about who we are and where we fit in to this wide universe. We look into ourselves to see beyond our selves.

This is why the Amidah is such an important part of our prayers. Sure, we need to shout out loud our commitment to the Unity of God, but we also need to stand in silence. Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi, Z”L one of the great masters of prayer has written about the Amidah. He writes, “Why do we do the Amidah silently? Because the greatest thing we can do is to offer our stillness to God, to make ourselves so transparent to the Infinite that the ego doesn't offer any resistance. But since this is so difficult, the Amidah consists of all of the things which come up in a person's mind: 'I am so blessed to have had ancestors which created and passed to me a tradition of seeking God.' 'I am aware of the cycle of life and death.' 'When I still myself I feel Holiness.' 'I am trying to quiet myself, so that I can place all of my awareness in the right place, so that I can harmonize myself, so that I can be forgiven my sins.' And so, the Amidah unfolds. But better even than just the recital of the individual prayers is to return after each one to the stillness, and then resume the formal prayer only when you can't hold the stillness anymore. It's a very strong thing to do.”

When was the last time we were really still? Try this sometime; set a time for a couple of minutes and find a quiet place to just sit. As the din in our minds becomes quiet, we can begin to hear all the sounds that we usually tune out. If we are sitting outside, we may hear bird song. We may hear the whisper of the wind in the trees. Of course, it would be unusual if we did not hear the sounds of a motor somewhere in the distance. But we might also hear the sounds of children playing, of neighbors chatting or the distant wail of a train. How many sounds could we identify if we just were still enough to listen?

Mindful meditation is a way to use silence. When we sit in meditation, we learn how to quiet our restless mind, to turn off the constant reminders of where we have to be and when we are going to get all our chores done. Underneath all of our busyness we can find the peace that we crave. We can let our mind open to the very roots of who we are and how we are feeling. We come to understand why we are in such a hurry and we remember the important things we buried under all that busyness. When we shut out all the voices that are making demands of us, we can turn our ears to the still small voice of God that is always trying to speak to us.

There can be holiness in all that we do if we first allow ourselves to be still, still enough to hear what calls to our hearts. There is so much happening in our busy lives that we often miss the most important things, the call of a friend in need, the silent call for attention from our children, the quiet plea for love from those we care most about. And somewhere in all that silence is the voice of God, reminding us to always be holy.

May we learn to balance the work with the rest, the noise with the silence as we seek to live our lives in peace, in love and in holiness as we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, May 11, 2019.

Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780