Striving for Holiness

By Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

There is one theme that stands out in the book of Leviticus, that we will soon conclude, and it is the ideal of perfection.

That heart-attack-causing demon that many of us pursue, each of us in our own ways; that unattainable goal that our parents voicelessly but undeniably propelled us towards: The book of Leviticus insists that our sacrifices—that is, our efforts—must be perfect.

In the parashah of Emor, for example, we find laws concerning the selection of animals for sacrifice, as well as the behavior directives for the priests who carry out those sacrifices. And the text of the Torah is clear about one criterion for these entities: the animal to be slaughtered and the person performing the sacrifice, both need to be perfect, without blemish, faultless, and flawless. In order to fulfill their unique and individual obligations, they need to be free from physical defect and from spiritual contamination.

Yet, as life itself today demonstrates, and regardless of what our parents may have advocated, we know that perfection is unreachable. Leo Tolstoy writes, “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” Most of us can identify with that sentiment. Perfection may be the expectation placed upon us by numerous external entities, but we are unlikely to achieve it.

In times past, the notion of perfection was thought of only in terms of how close we can draw near to God. In the Eighteenth century Mussar text of Mesillat Y’sharim, or “The Pathways of the Righteous,” Mosheh Chayim Luzzatto offers that “true perfection lies only in clinging to God.” And he cites as prooftexts two verses from Psalms: “For me,” writes the Psalmist, “closeness to God is my good” (Psalm 73:28) and “One thing I will ask from God, that I may dwell in God’s house all the days of my life” (Psalm 27:4), this latter psalm familiar because we offer it daily during the month of Elul, preceding the High Holy Days.

By contrast, in our skeptical and technologically advanced world, few may be able or willing to make our experience of God a criterion for perfection: it is certainly preferred, but many have other things to worry about.

So, I suggest that, in our times, we attempt to draw near to perfection by bringing and establishing a sense of k’dushah, holiness, in the world. For each human being, regardless of a particular station in life, can strive toward a certain kind of perfection that requires no proximate Divine connection.

As a value expressed ubiquitously in Torah, each person in the world should understand and achieve k’dushah even as we may fall short of embodying it. To be holy, or to be connected to holiness, does not mean one needs special training or to have achieved a certain amount of Jewish scholarship or spiritual enlightenment. Being holy can mean, as Hillel the Sage understood it, as being human in instances where humanity has been absent (Pirkei Avot 2:5).

  • Being holy can mean that when the Torah teaches, “love your neighbor as yourself,” we express the reality of human integrity, and respect for every other human being, as we are all created in the image of God. Each person should consider this as part of human firmware (Leviticus 19:18).
  • Being holy can mean that we can find a connection with one other person that is deep, personal, and significant, even if and when it is fleeting. It is there, within that relationship, thought Martin Buber, that we may experience the Divine (I and Thou).
  • Being holy can mean that we sanctify our quest to save our environment. If we do not find a way to solve our climate crisis, says the Midrash, there is no one else who can or will repair it (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13).
  • Being holy can also mean that we elevate and increase our own levels of generosity, caring, and concern. Have we offered our presence to people who are in mourning? Have we offered a listening ear to those who have problems to unburden? Have we offered tzedakah in the right measure to those in need? With each of these interactions, we bring our human presence – our own sense of the sacred – to the lives of others, enriching them through our words, our personal deeds, and our substance.

In these times, I consider our need to involve ourselves in the eradication efforts against the pandemic. With infection and hospitalization rates in India and South America increasing dramatically; with the glaring disparity between First and Third World nations in terms of vaccine acquisition and distribution; with the infusion of virus variants that confound researchers; and with the continuing-but-failing efforts to achieve universal mask-wearing compliance: With all these conditions, it is incumbent upon us to involve ourselves to bring healing to the world.

  • When we donate funds to an organization like the World Health Organization, its affiliate Covax helps to fund better vaccine distribution to poorer nations in the world.
  • When we wear a mask even when others are anxious to flout health guidelines and throw off theirs, we set an example and, hopefully, send the message that we care about our neighbor’s health in a real way.
  • When we work for clinics, food pantries, schools, and other non-profits in need, we say that we will be present in someone’s hour of need.

These are just a few of the many opportunities we have now for transmitting to one person, or a group of people, basic human sanctity and holiness at a time of crisis. These are ways in which we can strive toward perfection in our relationships. And these are actions that demonstrate that our connection to others is of the highest significance.

May God grant us strength and wisdom in the striving for perfection, and may we receive blessings as we bring sanctity to the world and all who live in it.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, DD, MAHL earned a BA from California State University, Northridge, in radio-television broadcast management and then participated in a Jewish students’ institute and worked as a television production assistant in Israel. He earned a master’s degree in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University and worked for seven years at Jewish Federations in Buffalo, St. Louis, and Houston. He then entered the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving his master’s degree in Hebrew letters in 1991 and rabbinic ordination in 1992. Rabbi Biatch served pulpits in Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Alexandria, Virginia, and in Glendale, California, before joining Temple Beth El in 2005.

Disclaimer: The From Our Rabbis feature seeks to provide a platform representing the diversity of our community clergy. The views, information, or opinions expressed in the From Our Rabbis articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federation of Madison.