The Purpose of Holiness

March 1st: Vayakhel and Pekuday
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to explain religious ritual in the following way. In our sacred history, certain moments stand out as sublime: we encountered the Holy One in a profound way and were affected spiritually, emotionally, and historically. We hear about these moments and are inspired, but would it not be better to relive them. This is where ritual comes in. A well-constructed and performed ritual is peak experience domesticated. We cannot travel back in time to the Red Sea and walk across it on dry land, but we can utilize ritual processes to put ourselves back in that spiritual moment and re-experience the closeness to God and the awe that our ancestors felt.

 In the next two weeks’ Torah portions, we read about the construction and assembling of the Mishkan and about when God enters it as a Divine habitation: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle (Mishkan). Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.”  (Exodus 40.33-37) Can we recreate this moment? How can this peak experience be domesticated?

 For many, a really good worship service can bring the sense of God’s Presence. Just as we welcome the Sabbath Bride in Lecha Dodi, the combined spiritual power of the worshippers can invoke the Shechinah, God’s Indwelling Presence, and we can feel God in our midst.

 Others feel more connected in Torah study. As Rabbi Chananya ben Teradion used to say (Pirke Avot 3.3 ): “When two people sit, and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests upon them.” Studying about God and godly ways can bring us closer to the Divine.

 Others find it helpful to invoke dramatic visions, such as that of Isaiah’s famous dream/vision:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on God. Each seraph had six wings: two to cover the face, two to cover the legs, and two for flying. And one called to the other: ‘Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! God’s Presence fills all the earth!’ The doorposts would shake at the sound, and the House kept filling with smoke.

 I cried, ‘Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips, and I live among a people of impure lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. Touching it to my lips, the seraph declared, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away.’

 Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And I said, ‘Here I am; send me.’ And God said, ‘Go, say to that people: “Hear, indeed, but do not understand; See, indeed, but do not grasp.’ Dull that people’s mind, Stop its ears, and seal its eyes—lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself.”’   (Isaiah 6.1-10)

 Part of this vision may be familiar because it is the basis of the Kedushah, an integral and inspiring part of the morning service. We imagine ourselves as the angels, turning to each other and declaring, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The fullness of the earth is God’s glory!” Imagine standing in God’s Presence, basking in the glow of ultimate holiness! It is an inspiring possibility and can elevate our souls and bring us closer to the Eternal One.

 Of course, God’s message to Isaiah—and what Isaiah is to communicate to Israel—is about more than mere ritual and sanctification. From the throne room of ultimate holiness, God’s concern is Israel’s morality. Just as Isaiah is morally inadequate, so is Israel morally tainted—“Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips, and I live among a people of impure lips.” God thus speaks to the need for repentance and moral improvement, and this is phrased in a kind of negative irony: “Don’t tell them, because, if you do, they might realize their evil and repent.”

 And so, from this encounter at the height of ritual purity and inspiration comes a message of ethical imperative, teaching us that the point of ritual is twofold: to bring us closer to God and to transform us into God’s instruments.

 Here is the way these two messages are brought together in a classic prayer text:
“O Lord, how can we know You? Where can we find You? You are as close to us as breathing and yet are farther than the farthermost star. You are as mysterious as the vast solitudes of the night and yet are as familiar as the light of the sun. To the seer of old You did say: You cannot see My Face, but I will make all My Goodness pass before You. Even so does Your Goodness pass before us in the realm of nature and in the varied experiences of our lives.

 When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow down before the vision of Your Goodness? You live in our hearts, as You pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Your Presence.”

 (Slightly adapted from The Union Prayer Book, CCAR 1940, page 39; inspired by a poem of Judah HaLevi and Exodus 34)