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April 29, 2023

Why be Holy?

Angela W. Buchdahl

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

"Why be Holy?"
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

We are in Parshat Kedoshim, otherwise known as the "holiness code,” because it begins with God’s mandate: “Be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  

Then it lays out some of our tradition’s most noble and righteous commandments, such as the law to leave the corners of our field for the poor, not putting a stumbling block before the blind, and the preeminent mitzvah of being holy: Love your neighbor as yourself.

These laws are so compelling, we read them on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of our calendar. 

But what we don’t read on Yom Kippur are some of the more head-scratching laws that are also found in this Torah portion. Like, Don’t let your cattle mate with another species. Don’t shave the corners of your beard or sidelocks. Don’t wear shatnez—clothing with a mixture of wool and linen.  


God cares about my grooming and fashion decisions? Why is that Holy?

The rabbis understood that this portion had two different kinds of laws: chukim and mishpatim. Mishpatim, or "judgements,” are the self-evident, ethical laws that any rational human being who wants to be a moral, 

good person, would follow. The chukim are God-given rules, whose purpose you cannot discern through moral reasoning. It’s like when your mom tells you to make your bed, and you ask, Why? And her answer is, “Because I say so.”

For many more observant Jews, the reason to observe the chukim can be stated just as simply: Because God said so. There is a humility and surrender to not having a rational reason, and their observance becomes a discipline, a way to show faithfulness to something bigger. 

But not particularly satisfied with that line of reasoning, Reform Judaism pretty much did away with the observance of the chukkim—like shatnez, the laws of kashrut, or wrapping tefillin—finding them not only irrelevant, but somewhat embarrassing and distracting from the moral laws that we felt truly led to holiness.  

These views are deeply reflected in our culture today, the most secular and rational in American history. The fastest growing religious group in America today are the “NONES”—as in no religion—and more and more people, younger generations especially, find religious ideas outdated and irrelevant. The pursuit of holiness, to be archaic and quaint.  

Last month, the Wall Street Journal released a study on American values, with some startling numbers: 

  • 25 years ago, in 1998, 62% of Americans said religion was very important; today that number is 38%. In 25 years it went from a strong majority to about a third.  
  • In 1998, 70% said patriotism was meaningful; today it’s 39%.  
  • 25 years ago, 59% said raising children was very important to them. Today that number has dropped to 30%.  
  • In 2019, the value of involvement in community was at its highest—at 62%; today that number has fallen to a record low: 27%.  

The only value that has grown, across the spectrum, is the priority of money: 43% saying it’s very important, up from 31%.  

If you were to look at the WSJ survey, you would see a country in a holiness decline, with vastly diminishing regard for the value of patriotism, religion, creating families, or serving communities.  

Is it any surprise that today we are also seeing record numbers of lonely and isolated Americans? That deaths from despair are the highest they have ever been in American history?  

Time and again, studies have shown that the antidote to despondency and loneliness is not just companionship. It is recognizing and engaging with something bigger than yourself: a family, a faith, a community, a nation.  

Meaning comes from serving something beyond yourself. And if you want to do that, the Holiness code is a good place to start. The moral laws of mishpatim offer a roadmap for meaningful living, but perhaps we should take another look at the chukim also, the ritual laws of our tradition. 

For these strange, nonrational laws can also play a role in encouraging holiness. Doing something because “God said so” may remind us that not everything we do—we do just because we feel like it; and not everything we do is ours to control.

This thought became vivid for me at the memorial service for Phil Basser this past Sunday. Phil was our avid livestreamer who celebrated his 105th birthday with us here in the Sanctuary before he died just days later. When Phil was a young soldier in the trenches during WWII, he promised God that if he made it out alive, he would wrap tefillin every day. Now Phil was not an Orthodox Jew, but he kept his promise, every, single day. Tefillin served as a spiritual technology, reinforcing in him each day a discipline, a gratitude, and a humility that [he] carried through his life.  

Every week, Phil blessed his children on Shabbat:  

May the Lord bless you and keep you.  

May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.  

At his memorial service, three generations of his family spoke of the power of being blessed by him. There is no rational explanation for what this incantation actually did, but through that simple act, he conveyed that they were protected and part of an epic Jewish story. Through it, he transmitted unshakable love, and holiness.

Phil’s service ended with two soldiers sending Phil off with military honors, folding the American flag, and presenting it to his family. There was not a dry eye in the house.

I cannot tell you what enabled Phil, whose mother died when he was three, who was raised in a Jewish orphanage, served in two wars, had four children (and lost one to cancer young), could live every day of his life with optimism, joy, and a sense of blessing; but I can say assuredly, he lived a life of holiness.  

Phil’s life was reminder of the blessing and meaning that comes from serving your country, loving your family, upholding your faith, and giving back to your community—the very values that are diminishing in our country today. But the mishpatim, the moral laws, and perhaps especially the chukim, the ritual laws which remind us to do good things just because without questioning—may be a roadmap for our way back. 


Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.