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D'var Torah: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

This week we have a double Torah portion, Aharei Mot and Kedoshim. In the portion Kedoshim I read about the Holiness Code. One of the main ideas in this portion is “you shall be holy,” which we recite in our prayers as Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. In Leviticus, today, we read about the Ten Commandments in relationship to being holy. To summarize, the parashah basically tells us our obligation is to be holy in dealing with our fellow human beings. In the Torah, a righteous life, a good life, and a holy life are the same thing.

What I would like to talk about today is whether it is possible to “be holy.” First I thought, what does it mean to be holy? I eventually gave up thinking and used the dictionary. I found the dictionary definition of holiness is: “The capability of being holy.” Well, that really helped. Then after reading more I found a different definition of holy: “Worthy of worship or high esteem.” This helped me a little, but not much.

Then I read an article by Rabbi Micah Greenstein that defined holiness as spiritual. This helped me a lot. What I liked about the article was that Rabbi Greenstein said holiness is really “defining the extraordinary in ordinary things.” This took my brain in a whole new direction. When I got thinking, I thought of examples from the Torah of this happening such as when Moses was at the burning bush. Was the bush really burning or was it just the appearance of the bush burning because of the way the sun was reflecting on it? Was God trying to get Moses to really focus on his surroundings? To be really there and fully present? My mom claims sometimes I am not fully present. I don’t find it very funny.

If Rabbi Greenstein says you need to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, does that mean in all parts of life? When I am in school? Soccer practice? Playing the guitar? Cello? When I am eating? Going to the bathroom? I think you got the idea.

I decided I would take a school day and try to find extraordinary things in the ordinary day. I wrote the phrase “extraordinary in the ordinary” on my hand because I thought that would help remind me. It was tough to always be fully thinking about this, but after awhile I really could focus on things and find that they were extraordinary. For example, while sitting in orchestra my ears were starting to hurt from the sound, like always. But after I really started to focus on the music I realized that it actually sounded very pretty. This brightened the beginning of my day.

During my lacrosse practice later in the day we were doing our daily five-hundred-mile run. Right on the 257th mile the sun came out. Seriously. It made me feel like I could keep going and I did.

Another example is when we were scurrying out of the house trying to get to soccer practice and I grabbed a brownie on the way out without my mom knowing. While I was trying to hide it in my mouth I looked at the writing on my hand and actually thought about how amazing the brownie tasted. If I hadn’t looked at my hand I would have just eaten it and not appreciated the chocolate. If it weren’t for the writing on my hand would I have thought about it?

Is it possible to live this way without having a visible reminder at all times? Is it important? Besides the fact that it brightens your day, is this a feeling of holiness? I am not sure what I believe. Is there more to it? Is it also how you act throughout the day?

For my mitzvah project, my friend Evan and I went to different nursing homes and played the cello and violin for the residents. We were trying to add a special moment into their days. While we were doing this it was Christmas time, so we were playing Christmas carols. This might seem a little funny since it was my mitzvah project but most of the residents were Christian. However, we also played “Hatikvah” which is Israel’s national anthem. When we did this, one of the residents started to hum along. We learned she was from Israel. Although she wasn’t able to speak she was still able to hum. While making a moment in her day special, she improved a moment in mine.

Maybe to be holy means to follow some of the basic Ten Commandments, but not just to follow them but to be aware of following them? Rabbi Greenstein says that Jewish spirituality is a matter of seeing the holy in the every-day. He invites us to wake up and open our eyes to the holy things happening all around us every day. This is what happened to me with the Israeli woman at the nursing home. She helped me wake up.

I have learned throughout my Hebrew school years that as Jews we have a prayer for everything. We try not to take anything for granted. Perhaps each time as a Jew when we say a blessing we are pretty much just saying “pay attention: something awesome is happening all around us.” So after all this thought, my definition of holy would be to be aware that things around you are special while also making the world a better place by acting on it. If everyone lived this way, perhaps people would treat each other with more respect and there would be less violence and less hatred.

For those of you that may not know, I love music and I would like to end with a song by an Orthodox Jew named Matisyahu. This song is important to me because it tells about all of the things I read about in my d’var. Is it possible to be holy? My answer to that question is in the lyrics to this song. The words are in the program. Please feel free to sing along.

Shabbat Shalom.

Matisyahu—One Day

Sometimes I lay under the moon
And I thank God I'm breathin'
Then I pray don't take me soon
'Cause I am here for a reason

Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know someday it'll all turn around because

All my life I been waitin' for
I been prayin' for, for the people to say
That we don't want to fight no more
There'll be no more wars
And our children will play, one day
It's not about win or lose 'cause we all lose
When they feed on the souls of the innocent
Blood drenched pavement, keep on movin'

Though the waters stay ragin'
And in this maze you could lose your way
It might drive you crazy
But don't let it phase you, no way


One day this all will change
Treat people the same
Stop with the violence, down with the hate
One day we'll all be free and proud
To be under the same sun
Singing songs of freedom like

Wye oh, Wye oh oh oh


—Zachary Kovan
April 2010

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