Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Kedoshim (Leviticus19-20)

Rethinking Holy

Karl Duncker, one of the pioneers of Gestalt psychology, conceived a challenge to demonstrate the need for unconventional thinking. In a room with a table pushed against the wall is a box of thumbtacks, matches, and a candle. 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 were 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 merely as holding the matches because of their preconceived notion of what the box was supposed to do. 

Many Jews have a preconceived notion of the word holy. As soon as they hear it, they tune out and think, “it has no bearing in my life; I’m not a bad person and do the best I can, but holiness has no place in my life.” Just as the box’s purpose wasn’t only to contain tacks, so, too, we need broad thinking when encountering holiness and view it anew.

Other religions say holiness is achieved by detaching oneself from the physical world but not us. For Jews, holiness doesn’t come by avoiding the physical world, it happens when we elevate it. There’s only one Torah mandated fast day a year—Yom Kippur—because our approach is to eat and enjoy food and express your gratitude by making a blessing before you eat. 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 as well as giving them part of our harvest. We also 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 and becomes holy when people realize, the more they give, the more they receive.

We find holiness having ramifications in time (Shabbat), place (Israel), and relationships (marriage). One does not become holy by abstaining, rather by embracing and distinguishing. We learn that partaking in the physical world isn’t a license to do what I want, when I want, to whomever I want; that’s what animals do. They defecate where they want, eat whatever and whenever they want (even if it doesn’t belong to them), and mate with whatever is in front of them at the moment.

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 humans, 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 holy thoughts on Yom Kippur praying in the synagogue than it is to have the same thoughts when eating—sometimes gorging—after Yom Kippur.

What makes something holy? Holiness comes from a belief of there being something beyond us—G-d.  Amino acids, protons, and every other building block of the material world have no mandate to be anything more than amino acids, protons, and building blocks, but we do because of our ability to elevate them. For example, not long-ago 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 a 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 soul to think out of the box when it comes to holiness. The Torah wasn’t given to angels, it was given to humans 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.  

Good Shabbos