True holiness: Importance of separating from evil influences

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum

By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

This week we read Parshat Kedoshim. The beginning of the sedra exhorts us to “Be Holy.” The sages struggle to define this mitzvah. How do you know you have aced your holiness quotient? We often associate holiness with places. Recently, the Notre Dame Cathedral fire made the news. That spot was, tragically, a place of anti-Semitism and instigated burning of the Talmud and the persecution of Jews. So, despite appearances of being a holy place, it was the sight of many unholy acts.

The Wailing Wall, or Kotel, is a holy site, as are Kever Rochel and Maarat Hamachpelah. The holiness in each of those sites was associated with the actions of people who did holy things. Every shul, Jewish school, and tzedaka organization is a holy site.

When we look to the commentaries, we see a decidedly less romantic definition of holiness. Rashi says that it is separating oneself from lascivious forbidden relationships. The Ramban says it is the act of not acting uncouth, even though one is not violating any particular commandment.

In fact, the word “kadosh,” or holy, means separation, from the mundane. It can be used to refer to separating from the norm in a positive spiritual vein, or the opposite.

I’d like to share two stories I have a firsthand familiarity with. I had a non-Jewish neighbor whose home looked like it had been airlifted out of a Norman Rockwell painting. She and her husband were good neighbors, friendly people. Husband a professional, and the wife also a professional, with a respectable job. Always dressed meticulously, with every hair in place.

On the mostly Jewish block, we felt very fortunate to have such nice neighbors. Unfortunately, behind the veneer of the woman sitting on the front porch, talking and knitting with her elderly mother, she had a drinking problem which apparently got so out of control it drove the husband from the house.

Again, this was a cultured, educated professional. The problems got so bad that the elderly mother living there asked the neighbors to get her medicines at the pharmacy because the daughter was too drunk to get them.

Every day, the Peapod truck pulled up to the house with more alcohol. One day the woman blacked out and the mother called 911; the paramedics took her to hospital to dry out. Not only did she not dry out, but she brought home a man she met in the hospital who could only be described as a replica of every trashy movie villain you’ve ever seen. Every night, the police would be at the house to break up fights. The neighbors wouldn’t let their children out alone to play.

And finally, one day as I returned from shul, I saw 20 police cars and yellow tape all around. The man she had taken in had drug debts; his debtors found him and brutally murdered him—and her. To date, the crime has never been solved. This all started with a little uncouth behavior. One drink too many, which led to two and three and the tragic end.

When I think of holy places and times, the Yom Kippur neilah prayers come to mind, as well as the wedding or brit or bar or bat mitzvah of a child or grandchild. But just about the holiest place I have ever been to is at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting. (I am not an alcoholic, though after decades at The ARK I call myself an “ARKoholic.”) AA has occasional open meetings that anyone can attend. I encourage anyone who hasn’t been to a meeting to visit one.

AA has a spirit of sincerity and support which is seldom experienced in other places.  I can’t do justice to it, but it is something every person should see. I always leave refreshed and inspired to move in a better direction and put my priorities in place in a way that almost nothing else does so effectively.

This next story is one I heard from an AA member who had over 60 sober productive years. He had been in the US army, stationed in Europe. Like many GI’s, he would go to a local bar and drink when on break. Little by little, he was increasing his drinking. One day, a comrade of his said, “Kid, you’re going down a bad slope,” and handed him a copy of the AA publication called Grapevine. This young GI initially laughed it off and kept drinking, but one day he was bored, and in the absence of anything else to read, he picked up the copy of Grapevine. He read a narrative that was literally his story, detail for detail, but it was signed by someone else. He realized then that he had a problem, and he sent a letter to the Grapevine to see if he could talk to the writer. They responded with the writer’s phone number and address. Amazingly, the writer was a European living in the same city in which the GI was stationed. They met, and the writer helped mentor the GI as his sponsor to sobriety. The GI returned to the US, and not only remained sober, but became a legend in AA, sponsoring hundreds of people during his over 60 years of sobriety.

Sadly, he was diagnosed with a terminal illness later in life. Knowing he only had a few months to live, he again sent a letter to Grapevine to see if they could find his sponsor in Europe (they had not been in contact for over 50 years.) Amazingly, the sponsor read the story in the magazine and contacted our dying protagonist. He then flew to America and stayed with our friend until his death. I attended the funeral, full of hundreds of people all profoundly touched by this man. And it all started with one humble act of abstinence and separation.

So, I’m not sure how to put holiness into words—but I know it when I see it.

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.

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