Reflecting Holiness

When was the last time that you looked in a mirror? What were you doing and why were you doing it? I’ve looked in several mirrors today in which I saw my own reflection: the mirror in my bathroom at home while I brushed my teeth. The full length mirror in our den while getting dressed, another few mirrors while washing my hands. In many of these mirrors I looked myself in the eye while I scrubbed my hands or adjusted my tie. I inspected myself to ensure that I was presentable and had not spilled anything on my shirt (it happens more than I like to admit). According to Jewish tradition, when I looked in the mirror I was staring not only at myself but also at God – for God made us all in God’s image.

I examine my face – my eyebrows, my nose, my lips, my beard, my ears, and the many features that make me unique. Yet I don’t see God, I see me. I look into my eyes. If God doesn’t possess a human form, perhaps God lives within, and I as I look into my eyes I think about everything I see and have seen. Then I turn around and go about my day.

We can turn away from mirrors and know that we are still who we are – the image we saw reflected hasn’t changed. Perhaps we have changed since we last looked at ourselves. When we return to the mirror, will we see the same attributes we saw before? Will we still see God?

I was at a meeting of interfaith clergy a few weeks ago when Pastor Del Philips posited that perhaps we can turn away from God in such a manner that we no longer reflect The Divine. Pastor Philips suggested that perhaps when we turn away from Justice and that which is good and focus only on our own self-interests and harm others, we spurn God’s image.

I don’t agree with that premise. Everyone, regardless of their actions, still reflect Godliness in some way. This can be difficult to reconcile when people do very bad things in our world, but it still means that the possibility for redemption still exists. God created our physical selves and then gave us free will and the ability to act on our own.

By giving us the Torah, God teaches us that we have a choice in our actions. We can act in our own self-interest or we can act for the benefit of community. God creates us in God’s image – with potential. Does God also create us as holy beings or must we work to achieve holiness? This question arrives from the phrase we read in our Torah, “You are holy, because I, the Eternal your God, am holy.[1]

The text is unclear if we are holy all of the time because God is holy, or if we are holy only if we obey the following commandments. These commandments, often called the holiness code, include many of the Ten Commandments and construct a system of laws that, if everyone were to follow, would mean a great world. This world would be free of poverty, we could fully trust one another, and we wouldn’t abuse anyone. Our world would be free of hate and full of love. Does following these commandments make us holy or simply help our “already holy selves” to be good people?

The concept of holiness can be confusing; because the word holy is ambiguous to many people and different people understand holiness differently. In the Sifra, a very early rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus dating to about 300 CE, the rabbis define k’dusha, holiness, as separateness. Rashi, a Rabbi from the 11th century, commented on the word holy and argues that God was distinguishing us from that which God prohibited and in which other peoples engaged. On the other hand, our sage Nahmanides, who lived in the thirteenth century, explains that holiness implies a separation even when we are permitted to engage in a certain behavior. He gives the example of wine: God allows us, and even encourages us, to drink wine, but recognizing our holiness means that we should not drink to excess. Holiness means that we go the extra mile to continue God’s creation, and Nachmanides concludes with a verse from Deuteronomy, that holiness means to “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord.[2]

Examination of the holiness code (Leviticus 19:2-19) reveals each of the Ten Commandments. While the Ten Commandments might be the first step in separating us from others, here God expands upon them to show us that holiness means working to fulfil a vision of a perfect world, concluding with the ultimate commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.[3]

Lest I mention love and not Jenny, holiness and separation is also a primary focus of the Jewish wedding ceremony. At our wedding, before I placed a ring on her finger, I said harei at m’kudeshet li, you are made holy to me and you are made separate to me from all other people. In saying this to each other, we also pledged that we have a different, special responsibility toward each other. To help and push each other be the best versions of ourselves – to do what is good and right.

We, our community, cannot escape the fact that God created us in God’s image – even when we turn away, we can always look at ourselves and see the potential instilled within. If we choose to harness our potential for good, we fulfill our ability to be holy.

Many of us took the moment to look into a mirror today in which we saw ourselves, and we also may have looked into other mirrors as well. In these other mirrors, angled slightly, we are able to see the world around us. We can look into the rearview and side mirrors of our cars and see other people, reflections of God, going about their day. When we turn away from our mirrors, we hope that we can remember that within each of us is a divine, holy, spirit yearning to bring our world one step closer to perfection. May we each find the strength to embrace our holiness and work to make our world a better place.

[1] Lev 19:2

[2] Deut 6:18

[3] Lev 19:19

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