May 09 2019 Dvar Torah

Rabbi Robert Eisen

“Who is the holiest person you know?”

That was the first thing our professor said/asked. Not “Hello”. Not “Welcome to this class: Modern Theology.” No introduction or roll, just the question: “Who is the holiest person you know?” There were probably 75 people sitting in the classroom (he was a visiting professor of some “renown”). By the next class, later in the week, there were 15 of us left. The professor was not disappointed or discouraged. In fact, he was surprised that so many of us had returned. His experience with teaching the class over the years had taught him that that question was harder than any of the “answers” we would be pursuing over the course of the semester. It was “harder” because even as we were asked to look outside of ourselves (it was presumed that none of us would suggest ourselves), it was inevitable that we would turn to our own lives and wonder if/how we were holy to any degree … look inside and wonder just how holy we really were – or, one day could become (and for some, if they even wanted to be holy in the first place ).

Why do I share that story? Because, in our Torah portion for this SHABBAT we read where God commands us to answer that question up close and personal, seemingly considering it a normal part of our being. We are told that God spoke to Moses telling him to (at the very beginning of our Torah Portion for this week: Leviticus 19:2): “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I, THE LORD YOUR GOD AM HOLY.” That is an awesome charge … awesome in the sense that it does provoke a certain amount of fear and trepidation: that is a large charge to fulfill … but awesome, also, in the sense of amazement – it presumes that we can be holy, calls on us to fulfill our natural destiny. And, different from that class I took (yes, I stuck it out to the end … in retrospect, consider it to be one of the best undergraduate courses that I took) there is no choice regarding whether or not we have the option to “walk out”. Either we strive to be holy or we do not … and there are consequences to the direction that we take.

So what does it mean to be holy? How can we fulfill that charge that God puts before Moses … the Israelites … ourselves? In the text itself, the answer is clear. In the same way as the initial exhortation is followed by some very specific commandments regarding our passions and our principles – how those impact and are impacted by the manner in which we relate to/with ourselves and each other, so is the path to our becoming holy to be reflective of the same. To be holy is to believe that we can be and to act accordingly, doing what is RIGHT and GOOD … understanding that short term goals can have long term consequences, just as pursuing long term goals can have short term consequences.

So: Who is the holiest person you know? Though there are probably a number of people who you would consider, look in the mirror and know that it just might (could! … should!) be you! We all have the potential, we have only to make it real.