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Things Sacred When They Measure Up to God
Judaism is inconceivable without the concept of the sacred. We are commanded to augment the world's supply of holiness, and this week's portion explains how. After making the furnishings for the desert tabernacle, the Israelites are informed, "Whatever touches them shall become holy." The sacred, apparently, passes the way a lot of things do: by contact.
How that happens becomes clear from a definition of the sacred. Jewish tradition calls things sacred if they measure up to standards we associate with God.
What would be worthy of such a being? Something loving, generous, beautiful. Holiness is the intangible quality that such things have in common; and, in its most refined form, the Torah says, it is spread by touch.
The sacred, though, can mutate into its opposite, so considerations of appropriateness are crucial: appropriate touch is holy; inappropriate touch demonic.
"Appropriateness" applies to humans, not other animals -- lions that maul their prey are not acting inappropriately; they are just being lions, and lions neither have nor pass on holiness.
We humans, however, have overlaid instinctive responses with the sense of propriety. That is because we are the species that has a soul -- the part of us that most resembles God. Only humans can be blessed by a sacred touch or victimized by a demonic one.
In Temple times, animate sacrifices and inanimate objects for offering them could contract holiness, but only, says Rashi, if they were fit to receive it. Presumably, fitness is required also of human beings, who are commanded to be holy as God is holy.
How Humans Become Holy
But sacrificial animals become holy so as to be offered to God; implements of sacrifice are holy so as to make such offerings. Humans, though, become holy "as God is holy." For us, holiness is an end in itself. We transmit holiness from person to person without losing any of it in the giving. As carriers and conduits of the holy, humans are peculiarly vulnerable to the experience of touching and being touched -- for better and for worse.
Children bank on physical touch, but adults know that "touch" applies even at a distance -- metaphorically, not just literally; and by words, not just caresses. Eulogies of loved ones touch us; so, too, does seeing a child laugh or cry. As technology expands the reach of human contact, we become able to extend the touch of the sacred to people living at a distance, halfway across the globe.
Jewish law best discusses action at a distance in the case of damages. We comprehend how a bull in a china shop causes damage, but how do we understand damages for which there is no immediate and proximate cause? The Talmud calls that "pebbles," describing the way the same bull walking through town kicks up pebbles that shoot through the air causing damage far away.
I think, then, of pebbles of holiness that we can send flying -- the way smiles provoke other smiles, and a kind word here creates a kind word there.
When I think of the damage human beings inadvertently cause, it may not be too much to say that we go through the world like bulls in a china shop, kicking up pebbles; but, as bulls with minds and souls, we are able to propel the kind of pebbles we want, not the demonic that damage, but the sacred that enhance the God-like soul of people we will never even know.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York. Contact him at: [email protected].