May 28, 2024
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How often have I heard that we Jews are no better than anyone else? How often have I heard that we are no different that other groups of people? That being religious doesn’t make us better, more ethical, more moral, and help us have healthier, happier, more mature lives.

If being religious Jews, doing mitzvot and keeping the Torah does not make us better people and does not help us live happier, healthier, more ethical lives with strong families, relationships and communities, then either the Torah or our observance of it is a complete failure.

But the title of this article is ”Are You Holy?” What does living ethical, moral and mature lives have to do with being holy? What is holy? God is holy. The priests, the kohanim, and the Levites performing the sacrifices in the Temple were holy. The myriads of angels that stand at the top of the universe and declare that God’s glory fills the world, they are holy. Tzadikim sitting in their tallit and tefillin and learning Torah all day are holy.

But we—we have to go to work. We have to go to school. We have to go shopping, pay the bills, rake the leaves and cook dinner. We have to help our children with their homework, diaper the babies, and take the family to visit the grandparents on Sunday. Holy is not for us. Who will do the laundry?

At Mount Sinai before receiving the Torah, God tells Moshe that we are to be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. What is a holy nation? What is holy? What does it mean?

The prophet Isaiah, Yeshayahu, had a prophetic vision. The holiest of angels, the Seraphim, call out to each other, Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh… Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the entire universe is filled with His glory.” God is triply holy, meaning His is the most extreme of holiness. God is so incomprehensible, infinite, so remote, so far removed from our material, physical world. Holy means separate, removed, special, distinct.

So to be a “holy nation, a “goy kadosh,” means somehow to be separate, special, distinct and somehow like God Himself. But how can we be holy? In what way can we be holy like God?

For God, Who is invisible, infinite, transcendent and triply holy, His holiness in manifested in this world by His ethical, moral acts. In our morning prayers, after we recite the angels’ announcement that God is “Holy, Holy, Holy, the universe is filled with His glory,” it is then followed by what this holiness means. “He performs mighty acts and creates new things, is Master of wars, creates cures, produces salvation, plants righteousness. In His goodness He renews the work of creation every day, constantly. His mercy endures forever.”

In the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, Chapter 19, we are commanded to be holy. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, am holy.” The parsha, known as Kedoshim, is followed by dozens of ethical and moral laws, including not to cheat in business, not to gossip, that every farmer must give some of his crops to the poor and needy, not to steal, to love your neighbor, not to lie in court, to fear one’s father and mother, not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, etc. We learn that living a life of holiness is realized by living ethically.

Then in the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, it is written, “After the Lord, your God, you shall walk.” How can we walk after God, ask the rabbis. Their answer: by imitating the ways of God. Just as God visits the sick, so too must we visit the sick. Just as God comforts mourners, so too must we comfort mourners. Just as God clothes the naked, so too must we clothe the naked.

The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva followed Rabbi Yehoshua wherever he went to see how he behaved. Rabbi Leib Saras traveled to Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch not to learn Torah from him, but to see how he tied his shoelaces.

The critical questions thus far have been: Are we holy? Are we no better than other people? Has being religious made us more moral and ethical and given us better lives for ourselves, families and communities?

Do statistics and facts confirm that we are more ethical and moral than others? Despite the fact that over the last two centuries the Jewish people have been affected by massive assimilation, where the majority of Jews everywhere are influenced by non-Jewish values, the answer is without question, yes!

American Jews have a higher rate of marriage than non-Jews. Jewish marriages are also much less likely to end in divorce. The stability and happiness of Jewish marriage also forms a basis for respectful, affectionate family relationships. Alcoholism and drug addiction and crime, especially
violent crime, is far less than non-Jews. We are overwhelmingly charitable, both to Jewish and non-Jewish causes. We have by far, despite our tiny numbers, made tremendous contributions to the welfare of Western civilization in every area.

Here in Bergen County we have the annual Chanukah Toy Drive, Bikur Cholim groups who visit the sick in all of our hospitals, a large Jewish membership in the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance corps, the Hatzalah ambulances, the many gemachs, Project Ezrah, Yachad, Tehillim prayer groups, shidduchim groups.

The Talmud teaches us that one who studies Torah must be honest in his business dealings and speak and behave pleasantly to others. Then people will say of him, “Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah. See how pleasant are his ways and how proper are the actions of this religious Jew.” If, however, one studies Torah but is not honest in his business and does not behave nor speak properly with people, what do people say of him? “Woe to that person who has studied Torah, see how corrupt are his ways.”

Are we holy? You bet we are!

By Martin Polack


Martin Polack is a business analyst who is involved in adult Jewish education.

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