Quick: if I ask you to think of something holy, what comes to mind?

I am going to guess that you thought of something religious, something that is deeply embedded with meaning by those who are believers in the tradition, the Holy grail, the Torah, a church, Mecca, maybe the Pope.

Did you think about that time when you gave tzedakah (charity)? Did you think of that time when you judged someone fairly, paid someone on time, or when you showed respect for an older person or welcomed a stranger?

This week’s parshah, Kedoshim, weaves together religions rites and social behavior as it lays before us a path towards holiness. According to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, self-transcendence is when the sense of self melts away, and we feel uplifted, elevated. Could this be what the Torah means to be holy, to find transcendence, to surpass the self and feel connected beyond one’s own personal boundaries?

Where or when do you experience transcendence? In nature? Listening to music? In Art? In love? I often experience transcendence in deep connections with other people: in the moments of pride and joy that I experience with my children and my family, in moments of witnessing, receiving or giving empathy, compassion, and generosity, when sharing stories with a good friend. I experience it whenever I can let go of my self-consciousness to move or be moved by others.

In the Torah, the secular, and the sacred actions that might invite transcendence or move us in that direction have not yet been separated into those different spheres of life. By intermingling many different types of human experience under the heading of becoming a holy people, the Torah also opens the possibilities for all kinds of ways that we may experience holiness and transcendence.

The Hebrew Kedoshim, a plural word, implies a community of holy people. The plurality of the word also suggests that we all have the capacity to be holy. Recently, I have been reflecting on the way we live, so separate in our individual homes, with our own orbits, and how we live not connected to many other people at all. We see people as we go about our daily business, but when do we really connect? We are so busy working, and doing activities, when do we take time to invest in building connections with each other? How often do we say to each other that we should get together, but then don’t find the time. And, subsequently, when we could use a friend, support or help from each other, we don’t know how to ask, or how to engage in providing support.

In this Torah portion, religious rites and ethical behavior are both necessary for becoming a holy people. If we open the term holy to mean those moments of spiritual uplift, of self-transcendence, then how do we pursue a life that gives us those opportunities?

Perhaps, it can be useful for us once in a while to collapse our definitions of secular and religious, to move forward not with the linguistic labels for categorizing experience or defining our feelings and actions, but with an openness to experience without language naming it and interpreting it for us.

Perhaps as we read the moral code embedded in this chapter, we can view it as a compass for directing us towards moments of self-transcendence, of something holy.   Maybe if we do so, we can find each other and build a holy community, a kehillah kedoshah.


Acharei Mot

“Acharei Mot”, “after the death”, are the two words that open this week’s Torah portion and the new chapter of Leviticus. I have spent a considerable amount of time wondering why the chapter dealing with the holiest day in the year and the holiest space in the place of worship started with the words “Acharei Mot.” The death referred to in the title is that of Aaron’s sons who died in Chapter 10. There is no obvious connection between their deaths and the directions that will be given to Aaron in this chapter. Why does the text deliberately add a sentence to connect the earlier event with the present moment?

As I carried this question in my mind, I started noticing all the places where death was apparent in my life. I noticed how many friends had recently lost relatives and were grieving. I thought of friends whose lives were changed by a terminal diagnosis. I thought of the people that I have loved and lost and miss. During this time that I was thinking about death, I have also been rehearsing for a play about a man facing imminent death who seeks truth in writing and in relationships. What is it about death that prompts him to engage with people in a way that connects to their own vulnerabilities and impacts their lives?

As an actress I am drawn towards acting moments of vulnerability and connection. Being in plays about challenging circumstances gives me a chance to live in these moments of relationship when the stakes are high and everything matters because death is in the room.  It is not that I like suffering, but that when we face the reality of death as part of our lives, we live more intentionally.  We seek meaning, we ask the big questions about life and talk about what is meaningful to us.  Grieving brings into relief what is important to us, what and whom we have loved.

What if we could live a happy day with the same sense of importance, with the caring as we live the moments we encounter when we are around death or grief?

How would we live differently, if we could hold a sense of the fragility of life at the same time as we embrace life?

The Torah text prompts these questions when it brings death and mourning into view just as it asks us to envision Aaron’s moves through rituals of the holiest day in the holiest space. Perhaps the text is reminding us that death and mourning are a part of holy moments.  Not because fear of death scare us into behaving a certain way, but because it is when we can care about someone else, when we lose that person, we can feel our hearts open to the love we hold for that person.  When we can bring that love into the room with us we are one step closer to living a holier life.