The Book of Psalms is probably the most famous collection of poetry in human history. Though it has neither rhyme nor regular meter, it was composed with the same intention that poets have had since time immemorial – an expression of the human soul groping to penetrate the mysteries and wonders of life. The Psalms, like most poetry, do not even attempt to solve these mysteries. That would be almost sacrilegious. Instead they welcome the mysteries and treat them with the respect they deserve. They are wondrous. They are sad. They are frustrating. They speak of joy, rage, awe, and confusion. But they also speak of holiness, that most mysterious and elusive feeling that many seek but few attain. To the Psalmists, holiness is no less essential than the air we breathe, because it is nothing less than the presence of God.
Holiness is one of those religious words that religious people use with disconcerting abandon and non-religious people tend to avoid like the plague. What is holiness anyway? The standard dictionary approach is to use an equally vague term like ‘sanctity’ or ‘piety’ or ‘sacred’. These somewhat deliberately indefinable words serve the purpose of establishing a very high bar for religious goals but never really saying what that bar is. It is amazing how difficult it is to define the word ‘holy’ or any of the words associated with it. The average person wouldn’t have a clue. The average religious person probably assumes they know what it means but just as likely could not tell anybody else what that meaning actually is.
The following comes from Psalm 24, one which Orthodox Jews are quite familiar with since they recite it at the end of morning prayers every Sunday: “To David, a song. To Hashem is the earth and its fullness, the world and those who dwell in it. For He founded it on seas, and on rivers established it. Who shall ascend on the mountain of Hashem, and who shall arise in His holy place. One whose palms are clean, and whose heart is pure, who has not lifted his (my) soul to emptiness, and has not sworn to deceit. He shall receive a blessing from Hashem and righteousness from the God of his salvation…”
What is the message of this Psalm? Why the dramatic introduction of the earth belonging to God? What is the holy place? Whose ‘palms’ are clean, whose heart is pure? What is the meaning/translation of ‘lifted up his (my) soul to emptiness’? ‘His’ and ‘my’ hardly seem like synonyms, so how could there be so great a doubt over the translation of the original Hebrew? Finally, how can a soul be lifted to ‘emptiness’?
The idea that all of creation belongs, in some way, to God, is foreign to the modern mind. Most people today, even if they believe in some form of God, usually restrict God’s domain to the heavens, whatever that may be. The earth is ours to destroy or to preserve. God may have created it, but He left it in our hands for better or for worse. To this common belief, these verses speak. ‘To Hashem is the earth and its fullness’ – everything – every single thing, from the smallest subatomic particle to the vastness of space, owes its existence to the will of God. If God were to ‘unwill’ it, it would all cease to exist. It’s no different than an image we conjure in the mind – while we sustain the image, it exists; once we drop it, it ceases to be.
The religious person is likely familiar with this profound idea. But it is one thing to admit that God generates the existence of everything ‘out there’, but something else entirely to attribute one’s own soul, one’s very self, to God’s will. That’s cutting things a bit too close. If I acknowledge that God indeed enables my soul to exist, it means that my own existence, my thoughts, my feelings, even my will, is in some inscrutable way in the hands of God, as opposed to my own. My soul, my self, is not really mine at all. It’s on loan. God has ‘loaned’ us these utterly remarkable faculties – a soul, a body, a brain, a will, a life – and allowed us to run with them. What are we doing with these gifts?
To this, the Psalm addresses its next words. ‘Who shall ascend on the mountain of Hashem, and who shall arise in His holy place?’ Who shall attain holiness? The person whose hands are clean and whose heart is pure. It’s no mean feat to have clean hands. To be able to look back on a single day and know, with no rationalizations and no loopholes, that we did nothing evil, that we kept our dirty mitts off whatever they shouldn’t be touching, told no lies, no deception, caused no intentional hurt – we kept our hands clean – is to look back on a day for the ages. Imagine going a week without blowing it once. Seems impossible? Well, that’s the first step in achieving holiness.
Step two is a pure heart. If you think step one was tough, it’s likely to be child’s play compared to step two. A pure heart means the following: all those things you managed not to do for that one day in keeping your hands clean, now try eliminating any evil thoughts. You’ll probably find that keeping your hands clean is one thing, but purifying your thoughts is a quantum leap beyond. Thoughts seem to just creep in there even when we don’t ask them to. The mind seems to have a mind of its own. How on earth are we supposed to control those uninvited guests that barge in spontaneously and linger around as long as they want?
Purifying one’s thoughts is a task of a lifetime. It means starting small, first by just recognizing the negative thoughts for what they are, before attempting to do anything about them. This alone is a great achievement. Second is to make minor efforts, once in a while, at gently shoving a negative thought out of the mind. Next is sustaining the purified state for an extended period, say five minutes, and then calling it a job well done. This time period can gradually be extended to an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime. There will always be opportunities for stray thoughts to work their way in, or out, depending on what their source was, but this too shall pass. A pure heart means your thoughts are what you want them to be, not the free-for-all affair that constitutes the normal human emotional/spiritual condition. All those thoughts of jealousy, of bitterness, of impatience, of hatred, of rage, that seem to be permanent residents of the mind, are in reality a kind of pollution that clogs up the spiritual channels and prevents us from seeing the beauty in the world, in others, and in ourselves.
Step three is the most difficult of them all. ‘Who has not lifted his (my) soul to emptiness’ – what does that mean? First of all, a technical note: there are words in the Bible that are written one way and intended to be read a slightly different way. The origins of this rather bizarre phenomenon are a little obscure, but the tradition of how to write it and how to read it is firmly established. It happens that the phrase under examination is one of these. Jewish tradition has the word written ‘his’, and read ‘my’. If the meaning is ‘his’ soul, it obviously refers to the person aiming for holiness – he hasn’t lifted his soul to emptiness. But if it is ‘my’ soul, as traditional Jews have always read it, then it is a classic problem of interpretation. Who is it that is speaking about ‘my’ soul? The Psalmist? That makes no sense whatsoever. So who is it?
Possibly it refers to God’s soul, as if God is doing the talking. God however, hardly seems to be the type of being who needs a soul. So what could ‘my’ soul mean? One fascinating approach suggests that it refers to the human soul, a spiritual entity that is almost like of ‘piece’ of God embedded within a body. “My’ soul is God’s gift - a chip off the divine Soul that has been entrusted to each and every one of us. It is on loan, and the time of the loan is the span of lifetime.
It is up to us to decide what to do with this highly unique opportunity, a chance to experience godliness in our very selves. To ‘lift my soul to emptiness’ is to waste this gift, the gift of time. If one considers the minutes, the hours, the days, the weeks, the months, the years, the lifetimes - that get utterly wasted on emptiness, it is nothing short of astounding. The worthless vanities, the senseless fantasies, the wheel spinning, the endless spacing out – these are but a few examples of how we squander the greatest gift imaginable. To be holy is to use every available hour, to not waste a single day, on emptiness.
Holiness, for lack of a better explanation, is godliness. The godlier you are, the more holy you are. Ascending Hashem’s mountain, standing in Hashem’s holy place, is no small task. It is the work of a lifetime. A life spent in such a pursuit is a life on the quest for holiness. It means keeping ‘clean’ hands when everybody around has no such qualms. It means constantly monitoring thoughts, even when tired or frustrated or overcome by temptation. It means taking a regular account of how you are using the divine gift of your soul – are you wasting it on emptiness or are you directing it towards its intended purpose. The path of holiness is not for everyone. But those who choose such a path understand that it is the path of purpose.
When the Psalmists spoke of ascending God’s mountain and attaining holiness, they were not encouraging anyone to drop out of society and become a recluse. On the contrary, the holiness of the Psalms is found in the transformation of the struggles and the setbacks, of the artificiality and the meaninglessness, into subtle revelations of the divine. It is to search for the divine in times and in places in which God was hidden behind the thick veils of materialism. What a blessed life it would be if we could somehow manage to cleanse and purify our actions and our thoughts, and to not waste a day on emptiness. ‘The earth and its fullness’ - every single thing from the furthest galaxy to the subconscious running through the mind - would be a revelation of the presence of God. Holiness.
Food for Thought
Holiness is a word that gets bantered around religious circles like small talk at a party. Is there really anything to religious holiness or is it all just a bunch of hype? Is holiness perhaps not connected with religion at all, and more a spiritual quality that is out there in the natural world or that resides deep in the soul? Why is the quest for holiness always an ascent? Why isn’t it just coasting along?
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Date: 08/29/16 at 05:03:23
Holiness (in hebrew: ) means separation. This is both a definition and an instruction. G-d or G-dliness is removed from us, beyond our comprehension and experience, outside our limited and lacking reality. The way to get there is through restraining ourselves (separating ourselves) from our baser instincts and the mundane etc. and focusing on our higher selves. Holiness is also expressed in the same way, a holy object such as a Torah scroll has laws and restrictions regarding its use and treatment, ie. it may not be used for mundane purposes like an ordinary object. Thus, the holy is set aside for something higher. Ultimately, the same root is used (in hebrew) to denote mariage, where the couple separate themselves from the world, devoting themselves solely to one and other. Similarly the holy person, ie. one who acts holy as described, reaches a unity with G-d.
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Date: 08/29/16 at 05:05:57
To see the hebrew characters in this comment (including references at the end), see my user page.