What Does It Mean to be Holy — and How Do We Fight Our Impulse to Gossip?

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By Rabbi Jon Cutler

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

“Did you hear about so-and-so getting divorced?”

“Those pants are too short; children should not wear that type of clothing.”

“The wife is totally nuts.”

“Did you hear what the rabbi did?”

I hear this type of talk just walking from the front door to my office. I hear this type of talk during services, and I hear this type of lashon harah, gossip, in official meetings. Sometimes I am just as guilty, and I dislike it when I commit lashon harah because I forget how it hurts others and has a negative impact on me striving to be holy.

One of the most important words in all of Judaism is kadosh, which means “holy.” We see derivations in the forms of Kiddush, Kaddish, kedushah, kiddishanu. It is a foundational concept.

This week’s Torah portion — Acharei Mot-Kedoshim — expresses this fundamental tenant of Judaism: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

What an awesome responsibility that we as a people, Jewish people, must obey and bear — “I, the Lord your God am holy” — to be like God. This difficult demand is directed to the whole Israelite community. It is addressed not only to the priests, elders and respected ones, but also to all men, women and children, young and old, leaders and the average person.

What does the commandment “to be holy” mean? How can you demand a person or a nation to be holy? Interpreters in all generations have tried to answer this question.

But in this week’s Torah parshah, we can find simple, direct answers to this question in a long list that details what “You shall be holy” means.

The commandments here have deep meanings, and the most important ones are those that include both human-to-human and person-to-God: “You shall each revere your mother and father, keep My sabbaths: I the Eternal am your God” (19:3); “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Eternal” (19:11-12).

Kadosh is translated as “holy,” which comes from the Old English word meaning “to be whole.” But the English word “sacred” better expresses the concept of kadosh, which means, as in the Hebrew, “to set apart for the service or worship.” I like to translate it to mean “to be other than.” Other than what?

For example, every time we give into gossiping, we give into our impulses, and do not rise above these impulses to be “other than” our impulse. We lose a piece of our humanity. We become unaware of the impact and results of such action and how hurtful and damaging it can be. To be kadosh is to rise above these impulses, to be other than our impulse, and to be like God.

As we will read tomorrow in the Torah, “Kadoshim” best expresses how are we to live in this world — “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind … Do not deal basely with another … You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. You shall not bear a grudge against another. Love your neighbor as yourself; You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (read Leviticus 19).

Kadosh is to live in a world other than the world of ourselves. The underlying theme of this week’s Torah portion is: empathy, the ethic of caring. We lose how to care when we give into the impulses of lashon harah. In the need of being inadvertently destructive, we lose the ethic of caring, which is the foundation of Judaism. Kadosh, holiness, is being other than giving into destructive forces of need to commit lashon harah. Kadosh is saying good things about others.

We will fail our children if we don’t take the first steps to imbue them — and ourselves — with the fundamental Jewish value of kadosh, holiness. Being kadosh is not in the heavens above nor the sea below; it is in our hands. When God tells us to “be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” it is a directive to rise above our impulses and be kind and gracious more than we might think is possible. 

Rabbi Jon Cutler is the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.