Thoughts on parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei.
Our parasha for this week tells us the story of the construction of the tabernacle, the organization of the religious cult and many other aspects related to it. In other words, it tells us about the construction of a holy space in which the Eternal was to dwell among the Israelites. This story and all these descriptions provide an opportunity to pose and answer a fundamental question: what is holiness?
It’s not easy to give a short, clear-cut answer to this question but let me try to outline the meaning of holiness here. In biblical Judaism, contrary to pagan religions of ancient Middle East, holiness expresses the very nature of God who is the ultimate source of everything. Objects, persons, sites, and activities that are employed in the service of God derive their sacred character from that relationship. Since holiness is conceived as the very essence of God, it incorporates moral perfection as an essential aspect of holiness, though by no means its total content – biblical Judaism does not confine the sacred to the sphere of the cult. God’s moral perfection and purpose is not static – it is revealed through His redemptive acts in history. Holiness, derived from God, is related to the realm of nature, history, human experience and conduct as well as to the election of Israel and the covenant. Finally, biblical (and rabbinic) Judaism looks forward to the universal extension of the realm of the holy in the end of days so as to embrace the totality of persons and things.
God is Holy because God is separate from everything else (separated is one of the meanings of the Hebrew root kadash, apart from holy and purified.) In a similar way the nation of Israel acquires the state of holiness by being separated from other peoples. This separation – between holy and mundane – tends to produce conflict between these realms. That may be why fire is a common symbol of holiness: because of the warmth/energy the conflict creates and its transformative function, both creative – associated with the light that existed since the beginning of ‘all things’, as well as destructive – that aims to create space for new things.
To be holy means then to have a profound connection with the beginnings of the Universe and Its source. To have this connection means also to understand this connection. It also means to be a part of the process of creation of the world. That is also why we sometimes refer to the birth of a human being as a miracle: indeed, this is the moment when the creative forces in the universe, as well as their effects, seem to be the most tangible.
The base for human holiness is human consciousness. I would define consciousness as a sense of totality of oneself, a meta-sense of all that is perceived, including the perception process itself that gives us the ability to critically examine our thoughts and feelings. It allows us to correct our behavior in order to act with the accordance of the Divine law. Being able to see the world and to perceive our own perception of reality makes us able to see the splendor of it and to respond to it with awe.
Holiness is the best antidote to human existential anxiety. The experience of holiness involves some kind of fear as well but it is a ‘domesticated fear’ – fear of awesomeness stemming from admiration of something much greater than we are. Being able to contemplate this splendor means to be free – to refuse to surrender to space, to get enslaved to things. Human holiness lies in voluntarily accepted Divine order in order to live a meaningful and purposeful life. We can find holiness only in life that is good; therefore, in order to find holiness we need to elevate our life to come closer to the ideal that God announced in the Story of Creation.