My daughter Ellie told me that this week marks the 14th anniversary of her bat mitzvah. I can top that; it marks the 50th anniversary of mine.
This year our bat mitzvahs are marked by a double portion: Achrei-Mot and Kedoshim. If you translate their names in order, it means “after death, holiness.”
That combined name rings especially true right now, as we grapple with an illness that didn’t exist a few months ago, and now has killed nearly 65,000 Americans and sickened many, many more.
So where does holiness come into the picture? The Torah tells us that it isn’t difficult. To be holy is to behave with compassion and mercy. To be holy is to follow the commandment from the Holiness Code in Leviticus, v’ahavta l’rayacha k’mocha, ani Adonai, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Holiness happens when humans go beyond themselves, go beyond what they thought they were capable of, beyond what was once expected of them. And holiness also means doing small things that nevertheless can have a big impact.
There is nothing abstract or mystical about holiness. It is how we behave in our everyday lives and when tragedies happen, and when pandemics slam the brakes on us, and when people in other places are dying but it seems nice and safe and quiet here in Sarasota.
For you and me, being holy today means taking small but meaningful steps. Being holy is staying home. Being holy is wearing a protective mask in public. Being holy is doing mundane things like praying with others or visiting family online, ways that were unimaginable back in January and February.
Holiness today is something different, something much harder for the front-line workers in medicine and those who support them, as well as those who support us by keeping stores and pharmacies open.
For them, holiness can be terrifying. For them, the simple act of going to work in the morning can mean the difference between life and death. Which is why our small acts of holiness are so vitally important. Because every holy thing we do can help keep another person safe.
It is entirely possible that our world has been changed forever by this illness that has circled the globe. And it is quite possible that for many months we will continue to pray together using the internet, each in our own homes, sharing holy moments together while physically separate.
If you get tired of this new reality, I suggest that you remind yourself: I am a holy being and I am being holy.
The Holiness Code was relevant 14 years ago when Ellie chanted it, 50 years ago when I chanted it, several millennia ago when it was written. But I doubt it has ever been as easy to obey as it is today, by the simple act of covering your mouth and nose.