One of the early students of Gestalt psychology was Karl Duncker. He conceived an experiment that used to demonstrate the need for nonconventional thinking. You’re in a room with a table pushed against the wall. On it is a box of thumbtacks, matches, and a candle. The subjects were asked to attach the candle to the wall and have it lit. Many tried tacking the candle directly to the wall, but the tacks were intentionally too short for the purpose. Others tried to melt the candle and attach it to the wall but paraffin, which would not adhere to the wall, was intentionally used. Relatively few people, we able to find the solution; remove the thumbtacks from the box, tack the box to the wall, and then put the candle in the box and light the candle. Subjects didn’t see the box as a tool, they saw its function as holding the matches. They couldn’t “think outside the box,” which in this case involved thinking inside the box.
This week’s Parsha begins with a word-a concept-that throws off many Jews. As soon as they hear it, they get turned off and tune out of the discussion. “Holy” is a word that makes people think, ‘that’s not me, has nothing to do with me, and makes me uncomfortable. I’m not a bad person and do the best I can, but holiness has no place in my life.” The same way that most people viewed the box’s purpose as containing the tacks but it took the out of the box thinker to realize that a broader view was needed. So, too, with holiness. We need to put aside our prejudices and view it anew.
Holiness is an important concept in Judaism because G-d instilled in us the capacity to be holy. If there’s no G-d, there’s no holiness. Inanimate molecules, cells, and bones have neither the expectation nor ability to make you holy. What is holy and how do we get there? Two of the most famous answers come from Rashi (1040-1105) and Ramban (1194-1270). Rashi posits that being holy means having the capacity of self-control to refrain from forbidden matter. According to Ramban, that’s not enough because one can refrain from doing something wrong but still might be acting in a lowly manner. For example, if a person sits on the couch all day eating potato chips, drinking beer, and watching TV, he has not done anything wrong but he can hardly be called holy. He’s done no wrong; he’s simply done nothing of value.
Other religions say that holiness is achieved by detaching oneself from the physical world but that is not our message. For us, holiness does not come through abstinence. In Judaism, holiness is not achieved by avoiding the world, it is achieved by elevating it. We don’t say that to be holy you must constantly fast. Yom Kippur, one a day a year, is the only Torah mandated fast. Our approach is to eat certain foods and make a blessing before we eat. We don’t say that the holy man or woman is the person who refrains from intimacy, we say do it with the right person, in the right context, at the right time. Anyone who has ever attended a Shabbat dinner or kiddush after services knows that we make Shabbat holy specifically by engaging in the various physical pleasures we enjoy that day.
The Land of Israel is referred to as the Holy Land yet much physicality is involved with maintaining its holiness. We plant, harvest, irrigate, and work the land yet we leave a corner over for the poor, donate a percentage of the crop to people responsible for the Temple’s service and upkeep in Jerusalem. When two people get married, the process is called kiddushin, holiness. Marriage is the most sublime relationship two people can have but thoughts alone don’t make a successful marriage, actions do. The more the commitment, the better and holier the marriage. Intimacy is not just another opportunity for stimulation of nerve endings, it’s learning to be a giver rather than just a taker. It becomes holy when people realize that the more they give, the more they receive.
We find that holiness has ramifications in in time (Shabbat), place (Israel), and relationships (marriage). One does not become holy by avoiding or abstaining; rather, it is done by embracing and distinguishing. We need to learn to separate; engaging in the physical world doesn’t mean doing what I want, when I want, to whom I want; that’s what animals do. Animals defecate where they want, eat whatever and whenever they want (even if it doesn’t belong to them). Each time we elevate our life’s seemingly mundane activities we remind ourselves that we have the capacity to elevate ourselves and our world. When we are engaged in holy endeavors, we announce to ourselves and to others that we are human, not animals.
It’s harder to engage in something with thought and moderation than it is to refrain from it altogether. It’s easier to have pure and holy thoughts in shul while fasting on Yom Kippur than it is to have the same purity of thought when eating-sometimes gorging-after Yom Kippur.
What is the source of the concept of holiness? Without G-d nothing is holy because holiness comes from a belief of there being something beyond us. Amino acids, protons, and every other building block of the material world has no mandate to be anything more than amino acids, protons, and everything else. It is noteworthy that in modern society, where belief in G-d is viewed as being as intellectuality inferior, that cursing in public is more common than in the past-and it’s more common in secular society than in religious society. One who understands that there’s a difference between holy and profane, will be less likely to use profanities. Also, there was a time not too long ago that American families ate dinner together. No one started eating until everyone was at the table. People expressed thanks for the food before eating and certain language and conversations were considered inappropriate for the dinner table. Eating was a holy endeavor.
It takes special mind to realize that a box filled with tacks has a purpose other than being a container for tacks and it takes a special mind to think out of the box when it comes to holiness. The Torah wasn’t given to angels, it was given to humans, creations who sometimes get possessed with anger, lust, resentment, fear, and have other character defects, but we also have the ability to elevate ourselves and break out of the selfish mindset into which we were born. Don’t be scared of holiness, give it a try and notice how the people in your life will begin to relate to you in a way unbeknownst to you until now. Learn to light your candle, and the candle of the people in your life.
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