“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.”
This opening verse in this week’s Torah portion contains some of the most profound lessons in life.
It dispels fundamental myths about G-d.
It teaches us the meaning of true love.
It uncovers our enormous potential.
It empowers and inspires us to change the world.
The verse is simple, deceptively simple: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” But this simple statement carries layers of meaning – as illuminated by a strange Midrash.
The Midrash states: When the verse commands us “be holy” we may think that we humans can be as holy as G-d Himself. Therefore the verse qualifies “for I, the Lord your G-d am holy” – “My (G-d’s) holiness is above (i.e. greater than) your (human) holiness.”
What is the Midrash trying to tell us? Why in the first place would we consider that humans can be as holy as G-d? And what is the point of emphasizing here that we are not as holy? The verse is telling us to emulate G-d’s holiness and sanctify our lives. In this uplifting and motivational context what benefit is it to remind us that we cannot be as holy as G-d – the exact opposite intention of the verse that compares our holiness to the Divine!
These and other questions compel Chassidic masters to interpret the Midrash in a novel way, offering us a revolutionary way to look at ourselves:
The Midrash is not to be read as a question and answer but rather as a statement of fact: “you shall be holy” can actually be equated with G-d’s holiness. And the power to achieve this level of sanctity is (as the verse continues) “for I, the Lord your G-s, am holy” and have the power to impart My holiness to you humans.
The reason for this is – and here is the real twist – because “My holiness above is (derived) from your holiness,” when we humans sanctify our lives we sanctify G-d.
Not only can we be as holy as G-d, but we actually cause G-d’s holiness!
The implications of this statement are fascinating – and far-reaching.
Our conventional view about the human relationship with G-d is a linear one: G-d is the Creator and we are the creatures. G-d is the “all powerful Father in heaven” and we are mere mortals on Earth. G-d gives and we receive. We are subjects; G-d is King.
In truth however our relationship with G-d is far more complex. What point is there to create humans as dependent creatures that only take? Is G-d “insecure” that He needs subjects to serve Him! [I am using the male “He” simply for convenience; G-d is neither He nor She].
G-d created the human being in the “Divine Image” as an equal “partner” in creation. G-d chose to have a full relationship with us – one of “give and take.” We contribute as much and even more than we receive.
Indeed, the sages tell us that the good deeds of the righteous are greater than G-d’s creation of heaven and earth. The reason: G-d created matter from spirit, and we create spirit from matter.
Yes, G-d chose to be “vulnerable” and to be “dependent” on us. We have the power to sanctify or desecrate G-d in this universe. “Love G-d” is interpreted as meaning “make G-d beloved to others.” We humans are representatives of G-d on Earth. As G-d’s children, our behavior either makes G-d look good or bad. When we behave in an exemplary way, we make G-d beloved to all those that look at us – and the Divine Image within us.
This approach challenges the premise that many people have of religion and G-d. We and G-d are in this together as partners in the unfolding drama of life. We need each other; G-d chose to need us and bound Himself to our behavior: We can deny G-d’s existence and defile His investment in us; or we can illuminate our environment with the Divine.
This is the essence of the most powerful of all miztvot: The mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem – sanctifying G-d. And its converse – the grave sin of desecrating G-d.
The six million killed in the Holocaust – and all those that were ever killed simply for their faith – are called “kedoshim” (as in the name of this chapter), the sanctified. By dying in the name of G-d they sanctify G-d – in direct disproportion to G-d’s desecration at the hands of the barbarians.
As one Holocaust victim told his Nazi tormentor just before the beast put him to death: “I thank G-d for not creating me like you”…
So here are the some of the powerful messages in the opening verse: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.”
- G-d as a powerful “grandfather figure” in heaven waiting to “strike us with lightning” and we as helpless subjects is nothing more than a myth. G-d does not exist in one place and we humans in another; we are bound together in a relationship, in a symbiotic and synergetic partnership. G-d is the “investor” and each of us is the “producer,” developing product from the resources with which we are blessed.
We are dependent on G-d for life, health and all blessings. G-d’s conscious presence and sanctity in the universe is dependent (kavyochol) on us. We have the power to sanctify G-d and make Him beloved among people, or tragically the opposite.
- This complex relationship/partnership with G-d is the optimal model for true love. True love is embracing vulnerability. It is not about control, but about complementation – binding yourself with a partner, in a mutually dependent union.
By no means does this compromise the independence of each partner; on the contrary: healthy vulnerability enhances independence. The fact that G-d allows himself to be “vulnerable” and allows us the power to sanctify or desecrate His presence is a sign of G-d’s absolute independence and confidence that His gamble will “pay off” and that the Divine image in us will prevail.
Protecting oneself under the guise of “invulnerability” and lack of dependence on others is more weakness than strength. The ultimate statement of strength in love is that you have the power to be vulnerable – and celebrate your vulnerability – with the confidence and trust in your partner.
Only then do we have the ability to release all our potential. As long as we remain afraid to trust, we also remain locked and defined by nothing more than our own resources.
- And what is our potential? We have the power to be like G-d! By imparting His holiness to us, G-d endowed us with the ability to be Divine. Moreover, the sanctity above is dependent on us. We control the fate of G-d ‘s presence in life.
“Be Holy” tells us about our infinite potential. We have the power not merely to be good human beings and make our world a better place – to tinker with the temporary and improve it a bit. We actually have the capacity to sanctify G-d; to make the mortal immortal and change the world forever.
How you behave in any given moment can either beautify or defile not only the universe but G-d!
We have unfortunately seen too many examples of people desecrating G-dliness, and its unfortunate consequences. Indeed, one of the formidable obstacles today in discussing spiritual ideals is due to the profound negative stereotypes that have been created by years of abuse and distortion of G-d related experiences.
When we reject G-d, are we rejecting G-d or the way G-d was presented to us?
4. Finally, “Kedoshim tih’ue,” Be Holy, is our call to transform the universe. We have been charged with an enormous responsibility and a great gift. We human are the only ones that can change the course of history.
All our choices either sanctify or pollute our environment.
What can be more motivating than to know that the destiny of the universe – indeed the destiny of G-d Himself – is dependent on your actions?
These are some of the lessons in this one verse.
All in one simple verse…
This essay is beautiful. I would like to know, when you refer to humans, and our ability to sanctify God, you are referring to all people, Jewish and non-Jewish?
Editors Reply: Yes, we are referring to all human beings, all created in the divine image.
Dear Rabbi Jacobson.
I like the title of your essay: Is G-d Vulnerable?
I was deeply moved by how this concept – the notion of G-ds humanity (kvyachol) – is articulated by Rebbe Nachman in Likutei Moharan, Section 2, 1:14. There he explains why Rosh HaShanah falls out on Rosh Chodesh, and I find it profound. Id love to hear your response to this.
Thanks for your humanization of Judaism.
I believe that it is about relationship; the relation with the other’… the other’… being All There Is…
Like the : Lech Lecha that means: ” Toward the All is the existing being” (on a journey to discover in his or her own Inner=self the reality that :We Are One in essence)
Conclusion: we can live on top of existing by being brough=up or be come more aware of Who We Are (We inclusive of All There Is)…
Ayin Tov, Birur, Birurim…
Thank you Rabbi. A profound teaching. Meaning and purpose are given to know we can be a true part of redemption and HaShem’s name and place in this world is affected by us. Our lives have meaning and we are needed. Not just “ subjects” but the very highest honor of being co-creators. Strength is especially given in times of challenge and what could be despair to know I can sow repair and Light. BH Thank you again for sharing your knowledge with us.