Monday, April 15, 2013

Holiness as Call and Command (Acharei Mot-Kedoshim)

Oftentimes, our commitments are what keep us on a steady life course.

The second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim,  begins with a famous verse: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal, Your God, am holy.”  Some consider this passage to be the basis for ethical behavior: our moral life is grounded on the principle of striving to be like God (known in Christianity as imitatio dei).  As Talmud puts it: “Just as God is merciful, so should you strive to be merciful.”

Yet, as is almost always the case in Torah, the Hebrew text is ambiguous and can be read in at least two different ways.  Some see “Kedoshim t’hiyu—You shall be holy” as a generous promise: we, the Jewish people, will be sacred in the eyes of God.  Other interpreters, by contrast, see the verse as a calling or a commandment: strive to be holy, by following God’s mitzvot.

I like to read the passage as both of these things at the same time: pledge and obligation.  I believe that committing to a life of holiness is what best enables us to achieve the promise of such a path.  Obligating ourselves to a sacred set of values helps us in the always-challenging effort to live up to that high calling we espouse.

In their very enlightening book, Willpower, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney note: “Throughout history, the most common way to redirect people way from selfish behavior has been through religious teachings and commandments. . . Consider a strategy to conserve willpower with great success: precommitment.  The essence of this strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path.  You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken.  So you make it impossible—or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful—to leave the path.  Precommitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens.  He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to be untied no matter how much he pleaded to be freed to go to the Sirens.”

By analogy, we, the Jewish people have precommitted to a holy life.  This does not guarantee that we will not go astray, either as individuals or in community.  We all err, despite our precommitments, which our tradition recognizes by giving us Yom Kippur as a day to make amends each fall.  But our calling to be holy does help us toward that goal, despite our frequent failings. 

We may not always live up to our highest aspirations, but without those aspirations, we have no hope to grow at all.  Our journey toward holiness begins when we commit ourselves to a life-long pursuit of that sacred destination.

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