I’m very happy to write about this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha from the Book of Numbers; it was my bar mitzvah portion some four decades ago!
As a young teen I was very impressed by the fact my portion was primarily an intriguing spy story. At the same time, I was happy to note that the very end of the portion contained the important commandment of the tallit. We are told that the purpose of wearing the fringed garment is to be “holy to your God” (Numbers 15:40), and it is this point that I would like to address.
One of the most important words in Judaism is kadosh, holy. From that root we get kaddish, the memorial prayer that sanctifies God’s name; kiddush, the blessing over the wine that sanctifies the Sabbath and other holy days; kiddushin, the traditional term for marriage that understands the union of a man and women as holiness. The synagogue is traditionally called the kehillah k’dosha, the holy community, reflecting the fact that we are called upon to be goi kadosh, a holy people. We term our sacred books in Judaism sifrei kodesh. Jerusalem is called ir hakodesh, the holy city and the inner sanctum of the great Temple that housed the ark is called kodesh kedoshim, the holy of holies.
Even the angels, according to Isaiah, are said to sing kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, and those are words we repeat in the Amidah prayer. Among the most important Torah portions is K’doshim in Leviticus, because it contains the famous Holiness Code that begins: K’doshim t’hiyu, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.
So it comes as a shock that in the very next words of Torah after the description of the tallit a major debate about the very nature of holiness erupts. The debate is between Moses and his cousin, no less, named Korah, whose name commences next week’s portion.
I describe this controversy in my new book “Judaism’s Great Debates.” Here is how the debate begins (Numbers 16:1-6 with a touch of poetic license):
Korah to Moses and Aaron: You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?
Moses to Korah: Come morning the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy….
Korah: You think you are the only chosen ones. We are too.
Moses: The man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!
I call this the debate over acquired vs. intrinsic holiness. Are we born holy, or do we earn holiness? As the esteemed Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz notes, “in the long history of Judaism, these two concepts of holiness have existed side by side.” And Martin Buber wrote that the dispute “was between two approaches to faith and to life.”
The question of acquired vs. inherent sanctity is more significant than one might initially think. Consider all the questions that can arise with regard to holiness in time (like Shabbat and festivals), space (like Jerusalem) and people. These questions are “holy debatable.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The sages wonder, in connection with this week’s portion, how the tallit enhances holiness. Yes, the act of wearing a fringed garment is a physical reminder of a Torah commandment, but there is more, and it has to do with the blue thread. “The blue suggests the sea, the sea suggests the heavens, and the heavens suggest the Throne of Glory,” wrote the rabbis. Even small acts, and simple things, can elevate us toward the holy.