A call to live a life of holiness
In this week’s parsha, Shemini, chapter 11 verse 44 says: “For I am the Lord your G-d and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” Here we have a call from G-d to live a life of holiness.
What does it mean to live a life of holiness?
In order to answer that, we need to go back to the beginning of history, to man’s very first sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, something changed in the dynamic of the world. The verse in Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, chapter 3 verse 8, says: “And they heard the voice of G-d walking in the garden.” The Midrash points out that it doesn’t say “walking” in the regular verb form, but “walking” in the reflexive form of the verb, which our sages tell us is synonymous with jumping or skipping about. The Midrash explains that this jumping about was G-d beginning to remove His presence from the world, stage by stage.
What does it mean that G-d started leaving the world? Although G-d has no physical form, we can feel His presence in this world; G-d’s presence in the world is called the Shechina, the Divine Presence. Indeed, there are times and places where we feel G-d’s presence with a greater intensity, for example, in a shul, in the city of Jerusalem or in the Land of Israel. When sin comes into the world, however, the Divine Presence leaves.
The Midrash then goes on to say that G-d removed His presence from the world in seven stages. When Adam and Eve sinned, G-d ascended to the first firmament above the world. When Cain sinned by killing Abel, G-d ascended to the next firmament, distancing Himself a little bit further from our world. When Enosh sinned, He ascended to the next firmament. When the generation of the flood sinned, He ascended higher. When the generation of the Tower of Babel sinned, He ascended still higher. When the generation of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah sinned, He ascended to the sixth firmament; and when the Egyptians in the generation of Abraham sinned, He ascended all the way to the seventh firmament – at that point the Divine Presence had left the world altogether. Then arose seven righteous people and, one by one, they started bringing G-d’s presence back into the world: Abraham came and brought G-d down from the seventh and highest level to the sixth; Isaac brought G-d another step closer to the world; then Jacob as well; then Jacob’s son Levi; then Levi’s son, Kehat; then Kehat’s son, Amram; and then Amram’s son, Moses – seventh generation from Abraham – brought G-d back into the world by building a Tabernacle for Him. G-d left in seven stages and returned in seven stages, culminating with Moses building the Tabernacle in the desert.
The ultimate redemption: creating a dwelling place for G-d
The building of the Tabernacle brought the ultimate redemption to the world. The definition of redemption, ie, a world fit to inhabit, is one in which G-d’s presence can reside; G-d’s presence only resides in a world of righteousness and holiness.
This process of creating a world in which G-d could dwell actually began when the people left Egypt. The book of Exodus as we call it in English is called so because of the exodus from Egypt. From a non-Torah perspective the main point of the book appears to be the liberation from Egypt. However, as the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, one of our great commentators from the Middle Ages explains, the correct name for the book of Exodus in Hebrew is actually Sefer HaGeula, “the Book of Redemption.” The redemption was not complete when we left Egypt; it was a three-stage process: first, G-d took us out of the slavery and oppression of Egypt; then, he took us to Mount Sinai to give us His Torah; and the third and final stage was the building of the Tabernacle, the place for G-d’s presence to dwell in this world, so to speak. Thus, the redemption was only complete once we had received the Torah and built the Tabernacle, thus creating a society where G-d’s presence could dwell. Only a society based on holiness can be a place where G-d dwells, as it says in the aforementioned verse: “And you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy for I am holy.”
Creating a world of holiness
How do we create a world of holiness in which G-d’s presence can dwell and He can be close to us? As we have seen in the Midrash quoted above, wicked people drive G-d out of the world and righteous people bring G-d into the world. Holiness means living in accordance with G-d’s will. When we live in accordance with His will, we bring holiness into the world and He is then close to us. An example of this can be found in the Chumash where it describes how, at the age of 99, Abraham circumcised himself as G-d had commanded him. Immediately after that, it says: “And G-d appeared to him.” The Ramban comments that G-d appeared to him in the merit of his having fulfilled the mitzvah of circumcision. The Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Gifter, expounds on this Ramban that whenever we do a mitzvah G-d comes into our lives and His presence fills the world. The blessing for every mitzvah that we do has the words: “Who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us,” because every mitzvah brings kedusha, sanctity, with it. Holiness enables G-d’s presence to come into the world and be felt in our lives. The way to achieve that closeness to G-d is to live in accordance with His will. When we do what He wants us to do, we create a holy space in the world, a place for Him to come and for the Divine Presence to dwell.
This is a life-long challenge: to construct a space that is in sync with G-d’s values – within ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world at large – such that His presence dwells among us. That is what kedusha is about: living a life of sanctity which brings G-d closer to us. And when His presence dwells among us we experience the greatest blessing.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expounds on the verse in Exodus chapter 25 verse 8: “They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them,” that the latter part of the verse is contingent on the former; when we make a sanctuary for G-d – within ourselves, our families, our community and society at large – then G-d rewards us by dwelling among us. He explains at length how the utensils and structure of the Mishkan are there to educate and inspire us to live a life of holiness in accordance with G-d’s will.
When we do a mitzvah – be it learning Torah, giving charity, refraining from speaking lashon hara, or whenever we do the right thing in accordance with G-d’s will – G-d’s presence inhabits the world and we feel the energy of the sanctity that enters the world.
Torah is the blueprint of the world
The Torah is the ultimate blueprint for creating a world of holiness, a world that functions in accordance with G-d’s will. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot, chapter 5 Mishna 1, says that G-d created the world with ten utterances: “G-d said ‘let there be light’”; “G-d said ‘let the earth grow vegetation’” etc. When you add up all of G-d’s statements in the creation of the world, you find ten. The Mishna asks, why specifically ten utterances? Indeed, G-d could have created the world with just one utterance. The Mishna answers somewhat cryptically that this was so that punishment could be exacted from the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten utterances and to reward the righteous who sustain the world that was created with ten utterances. How do we understand this Mishna?
The Maharal of Prague explains that the number ten is significant. There are only nine unique numbers, the digits one through nine; ten is not a new number, but unifies all the previous digits. Ten represents separate things coming together as one. We live in a decimal-system world; numbers are calculated in multiples of ten – hundreds, thousands, millions. The unit of ten holds so many parts of the world together and hence it was the number with which G-d chose to create the world. Had G-d created the world with one utterance, the world would not be multidimensional. The world in which we live is multidimensional and complex and yet it has the unity of G-d holding it together, represented by the ten utterances He used to create it.
The underlying plan and the blueprint for this multidimensional yet unified world is the Torah itself, as it says in the Talmud: “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.” The world in which we live is actually the physical manifestation of the underlying blueprint which is Torah.
We want to create a world of holiness, a world where G-d feels comfortable, so to speak. (We use human terminology when referring to G-d – even though He is above all human embodiment – so that we can relate to Him.) A world that functions in accordance with the blueprint He has given us – the Torah – is indeed a world where G-d can feel “at home”. When we live in accordance with the principles He has given us, when we build a family, form a community, and create a society based on these principles, then the world is in sync with His will as outlined in the original blueprint. This, in turn, creates the framework where His holiness can permeate the world and then the world is at peace with itself. In contrast, when people build families, communities, and societies which are in conflict with the will of Hashem the result is discord, strife and violence; in such a world there is no space for the Divine Presence to dwell.
Bringing G-d into the world
This is ultimately the struggle between good and evil. We need to increase goodness in the world so that holiness can be present. In the space of holiness that we create, G-d’s presence can dwell. We need to increase holiness in our lives by living a life of integrity and decency in accordance with G-d’s will, and expanding our sphere of influence, of holiness and goodness, to our family, community and society.
This is our calling: to be holy, and then we will achieve what G-d really wants because G-d Himself is holy. He wants a world that can welcome His presence and with His presence comes blessing and, ultimately, redemption.