Beyond Virtue


Goodness vs. Sanctity

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy – this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 19:2)

How much is a mortal human being capable of? Can we creatures of habit, bound by natural limits, achieve true transcendence? Or are we ultimately trapped by our own finite boundaries, unable to free ourselves from our very own margins, no more than a leopard can change its spots or a tiger its stripes?

Many thinkers and human theorists have long held the position that man can never escape his self contained universe. Being part of the structure of existence, we are confined by our inherent limits, perhaps stretching them a bit, but ultimately we will hit a ceiling in our pursuit of the immortal. No matter how far the finite goes it can never reach the infinite. If it isn’t our natural boundaries of time and space and our different dependencies on food, sleep, shelter and the likes, our own subjective interests will not allow us to get beyond ourselves.

An aggressive version of this perspective – based on the Darwinian-Freudian model that survival, self-interest and self-perpetuation is the cardinal drive of every species – argues that even our attempts at transcendence are all part of the self-serving needs of the “selfish gene.” The species may have a need to believe in salvation, but even faith itself is part of the matrix program that holds us forever hostage.

Another school of thought, however, advocates the human ability to actually rise above and beyond his own limits. Whether it is through music, art or romance, the human yearning to reach beyond our survival needs remains at the core of the human spirit, feeding our aspirations and dreams – yearnings that can reach unimaginable heights.

The mystics in particular teach how we can, through various exercises, traditions and meditations, connect with the inner light, the higher spirit, the deeper unity, the Divine energy – whatever name is used refers to the human capacity to touch the sky. Faith and religion offer people ways to get beyond their existential loneliness and introduce into our pedestrian lives dimensions of another reality.

But then we are left with the dilemma: How can we fit the infinite within our finite boundaries? Boundless energy in boundaried containers? Can the Divine be integrated with the human? The immortal with the mortal? The eternal with the temporal limits of our lives and structures, without annihilating us?

The answer in this week’s Torah portion is unequivocal: “You shall be holy.” Goodness, virtue and love – as great as they may be, are still part of the system, and thus, bound by its rules, boundaries and parameters. Holiness, by contrast, is more than human. Becoming holy means that your virtue is not only on your terms and your convenience, but going beyond yourself in helping another even when it’s not convenient for you. Human love is limited to your capacity and willingness to love, predicated and conditioned by your needs; “you” are still a factor, distinct and apart of your beloved. Holy love is transcendent and unconditional; it’s getting beyond yourself to the point where “you” no longer dominate; you and your beloved are one.

The Torah is telling us: Yes, we can, and yes, we must become more than human. Yes, we are capable of transcending the very system that sustains us. And furthermore, we have the power to transform the system itself. By sanctifying our material lives we transform the confined boundaries of existence into a form of higher energy.

But how is this possible? Don’t we have the rule that no system can change itself? Only a force outside of the system can change that system.

The answer lies in the second half of the verse: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” G-d has imparted His Divine holiness to us. In other words, though we are in the system, we have within ourselves a part that is beyond the system. And that part allows us to transcend and even transform the system.

Humans consist of two components: One part that is very much of the system, governed by the laws of nature; a second part is rooted beyond the system. Minerals, vegetables and animals only have the first part; like a clock, they always follow particular predictable patterns. Humans have also the second component, allowing them the ability to transcend their very natures. Every moment in our lives we have the choice – which part of ourselves will control our lives? To serve your own needs (even healthy and loving ones) or to serve a higher purpose, by sanctifying life.

In practical terms being holy means going out of your comfort zone and conventional behavior. Even if you are doing good things, as long as they are by habit and rote, you are not called one who is “serving” the Divine – avodas Hashem. “Avodah” means something that comes with effort, strenuous effort, not due to habit, even a good one.

As long as our behavior is defined by the parameters of our natural inclinations and acquired routines, then we remain trapped by the very structure we are following. When we go beyond our comfort zones and do something unexpected we allow our Divine souls to emerge, freeing us of the shackles of nature’s constraints. In turn, this allows us to sanctify our existence: We don’t merely expand our natural boundaries, but by going beyond ourselves we introduce into existence a dimension that is beyond existence – thereby transforming and consecrating it.

As we read this week’s portion – Kedoshim tehiyu – it is an excellent time that each of us resolve to do something new and unpredictable for someone we love or for a stranger. To do something holy.

And the timing couldn’t be more appropriate: As we come from celebrating transcendence on Passover – freedom from constraints and boundaries (the meaning of the Hebrew word mitzrayim) – Kedoshim tehiyu impels us to hallow our lives:

Be holy. Don’t just be good, be holy. Don’t just be human, be Divine.


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Paula Pankow
16 years ago

This is the how and why of abiding in Him for his sake. Holiness lives in my person as a result of seeking HIM at a decisive level. Great news, that I am Holy because he makes it possible, not my flesh, nor intentions, but by the Blood of the Lamb. Loved this inspirational message. Thank you for turning on the power in my day. Paula

13 years ago

In my search, I am learning new pathways to deepen my connections with the Divine.
To expand myself is to extend beyond limitations, comfort paving the way to greater levels of liberation. Thanks Rabbi for your illuminating insights that encourage atunement. Bless

Marc Lerner
13 years ago

I have been working with the chronically ill & disable for 29 years. I teach them simple life skills, to go beyond their thinking mind and connect to the Wisdom of their Body. This inner wisdom exists in the silence beyond their thoughts. It takes the same wisdom to heal and cope with challenges that it takes to connect to G-d. I teach them life skills like a positive self-image or self-trust so they can enter silence. It takes this inner wisdom to truly connect, even more than a great understanding of Torah. I teach these life skills on my internet radio show; A Healthy Way to Be Sick The show has no religious connection, but it is a practical way to connect to the Wisdom of the Body. Go to. for the past archived shows.
Marc Lerner
President of Life Skills Institute

Bruce Banasky
13 years ago

my first time receiving the weekly email
Very meaninful and felt inside.

13 years ago

The difficulty in staying with the divine is that it requires us to stay in the domain of the question, which the human mind abhors.
Answers are what the mind demands in order to give it a sense of stability and order.
Our tradition fosters questioning and questing. Yet, even we automatically think that responses will satisfy our incompleteness ie our questions. But given the kaleidoscopic nature of reality, which is the multifaceted nature of God, we achieve only limited and transitional success through our answers.
I would suggest that long before Hegel came up with the dialectic, Judaism embedded it into its analytic system.
Beyond philosophy, the practice of questioning, and staying in the domain of the question even after acquiring an answer, is an aspect of the physics of spirituality.
Water is a metaphor for Torah. It is fluid and ever changing. Paradoxically, while the principles in the Torah are constant, their application is malleable and situational.
So, the evocation by God to be holy is an aspirational call to be in the moment, and to be appropriate and special. As His name is Hamakom, so are we enjoined to be in this place, this time, and render it, and ourselves, holy.

12 years ago

I am always so enriched and inspired by your writing. Without a doubt, you are so much above your human limitation and high in your divine

The Meaningful Life Center