This week’s Torah portion Parshat Kedoshim begins with G‑d commanding the Jewish people to be kadosh (holy).
The obvious question is what is the meaning of the word holy? How can Shabbat be a holy day and a person is supposed to be holy?
A few students came to my office last week and we discussed this very question. We first examined Rashi’s commentary, which says that in this context G-d was commanding the Jewish people to separate themselves from illicit relationships. We realized that although this definition of the word holy may work here, it would not work by how other things the Torah calls holy - like Shabbat, Tefillin, and Yom Tov.
I told the students that my grandfather Rabbi Jack Roth, ob’m, used to tell me that the word holy means separate. This definition works because Shabbat and Yom Tov are separated from the regular weekdays, and we actually say Kiddush and Havdalah to establish this separation and distinction. Regarding illicit relationships, one separates him/herself and establishes correct relations thus showing the distinction of how a Jew approaches relationships.
I always thought this answer was adequate until last week when one of the students asked what happens if you separate and distinguish something that is bad - Is that holy? For instance, if I decide that whenever I go to sport games that I will use foul language, does that make foul language in a sport game holy?
The answer is definitely not! This leads us to define holiness as a distinction/separation that leads to a good. However, how is one supposed to define what is good and what is bad? One of the students replied, “Because G-d gave us a Torah to know what things to do that are good and what bad things to stay away from”.
With this we drew the conclusion that it would be very difficult to be a holy person without the Torah’s guidelines, and how fortunate we are to have the Torah. As it is written in the morning prayers, אשרינו מה טוב חלקינו ומה נעים גורלינו ומה יפה ירושתינו “Happy are we, how good is our portion, how lovely is our fate, how beautiful is our heritage.” In the same vein, we should recognize how lucky we are to participate in a heritage that gives us a path to holiness and obviously, there is no better day for that recognition than Shabbat.