Shemini and Hahodesh
For the week of March 29, 2003 / 25 Adar 2 5763
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47
and Shemot / Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1 - 7:17
Replaced by: Ezekiel 45:16-46

Why Be Holy?

I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy (Vayikra / Leviticus 11:45).

Several times in the third book of the Torah, we read words similar to the statement above: "Be holy, because I am holy" (Vayikra / Leviticus 11:44, 35; 19:2; 20:7). Many of us find the word, "holy" strange, since we don't use it outside of biblical and religious contexts. That may be because it is a uniquely spiritual term. Most scholars say the meaning of "holy" is "separation" - a separation of persons or things to God and his affairs.

Items that are holy might resemble common things, but once they are given over to the service of God, they become holy. Once becoming holy, they are not to be used in any way one might wish. Rather they must be used and cared for according to very specific rules.

God's people are to be holy. That is why the Torah outlines many specific regulations as to behavior. What was to be eaten, the regulations of worship, marital relationships, civil life, clothing, agricultural matters, and so on were all affected by this call to be holy.

But why did the people of Israel have to live like this? Why did God insist that they follow such a strict code of conduct? What was the basis of having to be holy?

Was it because of its benefits? Following God's regulations certainly provides a much more healthy lifestyle than that of the other cultures of Moses' day. But God didn't say, "Be holy, because it is healthy."

Perhaps the call to be holy was so that the people of Israel would become and remain a distinct nation. Clearly this is one of the goals of holiness, but not its basis.

Some may think the need to be holy was due to a need for Israel to rise to a higher plain of spirituality, a higher conscience, or something like that. But again, these benefits are a result, not the reason for it.

The actual reason is clearly stated in the text: "Be holy, because I am holy." The basis for Israel's call to holiness is that God himself is holy.

The notion of God himself being holy deepens the concept of holiness as separation. God is the absolute separate one. He is completely other. Though he created all things, he is not like anything that he created. There is nothing in the universe that is like God. Therefore when someone or something is given over to God, their existence is found in the realm of one who is very different from the normal one in which we live.

And so the call to be holy, while having great benefits, was due to the people's new relationship with God. If they were to maintain that relationship, their lifestyle needed to conform to him and his ways.

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