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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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Making the mundane holy

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Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

“You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” These are the words that introduce Leviticus 19, one of the most powerful and uplifting chapters in the Torah. In it, we’re not only commanded by God to “be holy” but, helpfully, we’re provided with an exhaustive list of activities that define holiness.

What’s remarkable about this list is the sheer range of human activity it encompasses. There are commandments about Shabbat and sacrifices, and against idolatry. There are commandments to leave the corners of your fields for the poor, to love the stranger, and to rise before the aged, and there are prohibitions against stealing, insulting the deaf, showing favour to either the poor or the rich, bearing a grudge, and falsifying weights.

What is particularly interesting about this list is how it sheds light on what it means to be holy in Judaism. On one hand, holiness is about separation, setting aside what is holy from what is profane and mundane. To be holy means to make an effort to separate ourselves from the everyday and usual and set time aside in our lives to focus on the spiritual. Thus we set aside Shabbat, sanctifying it to God and creating a space in our lives to be holy, away from the distractions of our daily lives.

But in Judaism, as reflected in this list, holiness is also part of how we interact with the world. It’s about how we relate to others, how we conduct business, how we deal with our employees. Judaism is famously not just a religion but “a way of life,” a tradition that deals with all aspects of existence, no matter how mundane.

Thus Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues: “Judaism is a theology of the common deed, of the trivialities of life, dealing not so much with training for the exceptional as with the management of the trivial.” We’re commanded to be part of the world, involved in its minutiae, finding holiness in the everyday. Thus when we help a person overcome an obstacle in their lives, we’re being holy. When we give tzedakah or volunteer to help those less fortunate than ourselves, we’re being holy. And when we act in ways that foster tolerance and understanding between people, we’re being holy.

While these two concepts of holiness may seem radically different – separation from the world versus being part of it – they are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. Finding holiness in the everyday is not about making more moments mundane but about raising more of the everyday to be holy. It is about recognizing that moments we might otherwise think of as mundane and insignificant can and should be made holy and special. In every interaction we have in life, we have the opportunity not just to find holiness but to make holiness, setting aside that moment and sanctifying it. And every time we do we make ourselves and the world a little more holy.

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel is a rabbi at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto.

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