A SENSE OF THE SACRED
Yom Kippur, 5783
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
Thanks to Netflix some outstanding Israeli television shows have come to America. Fauda
is my favorite, and Shtissel
is my second. Most recently I viewed The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
. While not my favorite, a scene from the first episode sticks in my head. In 1919 Jerusalem Gabriel is (unhappily) marrying Rosa, at the insistence of his mother. We know that this marriage will be troubled, as Sephardic Gabriel has fallen in love with another, forbidden Ashkenazic woman named Ruchel. Yet in a vivid wedding scene Gabriel and Rosa exchange vows and rings and the rabbi calls out, in the traditional fashion, “mekudeshet, mekudeshet, mekudeshet
What is the rabbi saying? Mekudeshet
is a form of the word Kadosh⏤holy; sanctified. The triple repetition of the word echoes the triple repetition of a key verse of the Amidah
prayer⏤a line that we recited earlier: Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh
. The rabbi is declaring that the marriage of Gabriel and Rosa has been sanctified in the eyes of God and the community.
In fact, the Hebrew expression for marriage is Kiddushin
, from that same root of holiness. And the home that a couple builds in called mikdash me’at
, a small place of holiness.
When you stop and think about it, the root “kof, dalet, shin
” is everywhere in Judaism. Kadosh
appears 600 times in the Hebrew Bible. It appears throughout our prayer book. The blessing that we say when we raise the wine cup on the sabbath⏤it’s called the kiddush
. The prayer that we say in memory of the depart⏤it’s called the kaddish
In Judaism, time can be holy, like the Sabbath, the holy day. Space can be holy, like Israel, the Holy Land. Like Jerusalem, the Holy City, and like the ancient Temple, the Holy House. The inner sanctum of the Temple, where the tablets of the covenant were kept, was called the Holy of Holies. Even today, the ark behind me, is called the Aron HaKodesh
, the Holy Ark, and it houses the Torah scrolls, which are called, sifrei kodesh
, the holy books.
Time, space, and of course, people can be holy. Exodus calls us to be a holy people. This afternoon, as we do every year, we will read the Holiness Code of Leviticus. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” begins the reading. Emulate God, the source of holiness.
Today, Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of sabbaths, is often called the holiest day of the year. So it is all together appropriate that we speak this morning about holiness. To tell you the truth, as I began this sermon, I was surprised that I have never taken up the subject before. I was surprised that as central as this concept is in Judaism, few rabbis address it. The more I thought about it, I was, like, “holy moly”, we never talk about holiness!
I’ve entitled this talk, “A Sense of the Sacred”. Given the brief amount of time I have, my goal is to explore just two questions: What exactly do we mean by holiness? And why does it matter? In other words: what do we lose when we give up a sense of the sacred?
The word holy
comes from the old English holig
. The word kadosh
comes from the Hebrew meaning to be set apart
. In the religious sense something that is holy has special, transcendent meaning or purpose. It has enduring worth because it is connected to God or some other purpose we infinitely value.
As such we regard that which is holy as sacrosanct, non-negotiable. They are core values or objects worthy of veneration. They are not to be treated lightly or defiled. They are set apart to be idealized and protected.
A sense of the sacred instills within us reverence, which in turn elicits respect, obedience and loyalty. As Maimonides memorably explained it, “We do not act when in the presence of a king as we do when we are merely in the company of family or friends” [Guide III:51]. In this sanctuary (from the Latin word for holy
) we sense a Higher Presence. And the inscription over our ark certainly reinforces that: “Da lifnei mi atah omed”
⏤“Know before whom you stand.”
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote significantly, “Reverence gives power to ritual, ceremony, social conventions, and civilities. It helps transform autonomous individuals into a collectively responsible group. You cannot sustain a national identity or even a marriage without loyalty. You cannot socialize successive generations without respect for figures of authority. You cannot defend the non-negotiable value of human dignity without a sense of the sacred. That is why the prophetic ethic of justice and compassion had to be supplemented with the priestly ethic of holiness.”
In this spirit let me suggest that we need to reclaim a sense of the sacred both religiously and civically.
There is something sacred about the hallowed ground of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
There is something sacred about Liberation Day in the Jewish calendar (Pesach) and Independence Day in the American civic calendar.
There is something sacred about the Torah of the people of Israel and the Constitution of the people of America.
One need not believe that every word of the Torah is from God to still revere it. Doing so indelibly connects us to our history, our traditions, and to the core values of Judaism. Considering the Torah not infallible but nevertheless holy means we will want to study it and live it. That’s not only worthy, but the key to perpetuating Judaism.
I would say something similar about the Constitution. Regarding it as a simply secular and flawed document is unfortunate. Reverence for it will engender loyalty to its ideals. We will want to study it, interpret it and defend it. That’s not only worthy, but the key to perpetuating a United States of America.
As Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, a proud, gay, African American wrote this past July 4:
I believe we still can agree on a set of ideas—values and aspirations—enshrined in our Declaration [and Constitution], 246 years on.
In our founding, I see flawed genius. In the Declaration we celebrate, I see a statement of purpose. In our Constitution, I see our founders entrusting each generation to fix what the preceding one was unwilling to repair.
To me, the callous cruelty of our founders—at least 34 of the 56 men who signed the declaration also enslaved human beings—is less remarkable than what they set in motion, however contradictory. They initiated a grand, complicated experiment with self-government that made possible abolition and suffrage, worker’s rights and civil rights and women’s rights, however slowly and unevenly. More astounding still, Black people and brown people, the Indigenous and the immigrant, L.G.B.T.Q. people and people with disabilities, all claimed the American project as our own and expanded the circle of inclusion and opportunity.
Darren Walker concludes:
My love of America—of the American idea—is unwavering. This laboratory of liberty is worth saving, worth improving. I would add, to save this laboratory of liberty, we must see our fidelity to the ideals of Constitution as a sacred calling.
When Lincoln came to Gettysburg he talked about this sacred calling:
But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
The countless generations of Jews who have devoted themselves to the Torah have forever hallowed it. The numerous generations of Americans who have defended the Constitution have forever hallowed it.
When we recite the Kedushah
, the holiness section of the Amidah
prayer at every Sunday morning at our religious school service, I love it when our kids, in the traditional manner, reach up on their toes as they say kadosh, kadosh, kadosh
. We’ve explained to them that this dramatizes our desire to reach up in holiness in our lives. We’re commanded to be holy, but that’s always a work in progress. We can always go higher.
May it be said of us that we reached up for holiness.
That we recognized before whom we stand.
That it was said of our lives: mekudeshet, mekudeshet, mekudeshet