The Bible may be a massive volume with more than 600 commandments, but for me, its message is encapsulated in a verse from this week’s Torah portion: “God spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You must be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
What does it mean to be holy? The Torah gives us some examples in the verses that follow: To make sure that people who are hungry are fed. To tell the truth, to be fair, to love our neighbors. Don’t curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind.
It sounds so simple, and yet we know that it’s not easy to be holy. Striving for holiness means reaching beyond our grasp, trying to do the impossible and trying nonetheless. It can be frustrating. As soon as I think I’ve got the hang of being a good person, I do something stupid, say something thoughtless, hurt someone’s feelings. It’s a little like the long driveway where my parents lived in Maryland; on icy days, you could find yourself sliding backwards down the hill, just when you thought you’d reached the top.
For me, there is a clue about holiness is embedded in the very sentence I quoted a moment ago. “God spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them…”
There’s a Hasidic story about a young student who disrupted the study hall every time his teacher began to read the words “And God spoke . . .” He would jump to his feet clapping and dancing and laughing with delight that God spoke once again.
Could it be that our journey to holiness is linked to speech? That, just like God in the Bible, when we speak it can be holy, delightful? That the things we say in our everyday lives have even more weight than we imagine? If so, every word we say has the potential for holiness.
That isn’t the whole answer, of course. The saying “actions speak louder than words” comes to mind, and I was taught that Judaism is a religion of doing, of right action, not words. Which means that reaching for holiness whenever we speak is one small piece of something much, much larger. But for today, I can try to take that one small step.