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Holy Brothers, Holy Sisters – Parashat Kedoshim

Meredith Polsky
Holy Brothers, Holy Sisters; Matan
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,   וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.   דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

Jackpot! Score! High-five! Yes! Winner! These are all natural responses to the opening of this Torah portion. It’s right there in black and white, whether it is written on parchment or paper. We ARE holy because God is holy. We have been singled out for holiness. We have an automatic status of holiness simply because God is holy. According to verse 2, holiness is not something we have to work for to achieve. Holiness is not something set aside only for certain people. Everyone, every-one IS holy by virtue of the fact (belief) that God is holy. Woo hoo!

Finished and done!

Holy brothers and sisters, if only it were truly that simple. Yes, the portion opens with God telling Moses (to tell the Israelites) that we are holy because God is holy. However, the rest of the Torah portion is basically a list of commandments that must be obeyed in order for the holiness to be activated and maintained.

Kedoshim takes me all the way back to the first Torah portion, B’reishit, the story of Creation. God creates humans in God’s image with certain God-like abilities. We have God-like abilities because God is God. In this Torah portion we are also singled out by God, from all other creations and given this tremendous power and opportunity. The part that excites, intrigues and inspires me most, is how humanity is given life. God breathes into the nostrils of human being and life is activated. We are the living vessel for God’s breath.

Humanity’s first breath is literally God’s breath. This breath is filled with possibility. And then, we have a lifetime to decide how to use our breath. Will we create or destroy (like God)? Will we honor or disregard? Will we elevate or degrade? Will we care for or ignore? Will we defend or be silent? Will we choose to love and live through the lens that everyone, every-one is created in the image of God with God-like abilities?

Kedoshim is asking us to revisit our pledge. No matter what, the status of holy is ours. We are born with it and it’s our forever.

God reminds us of the different ways to nurture and uphold this unique and very awesome gift. We must honor our mothers and fathers. Actually the text says “fear” (literally; “be in awe of”). We must keep Shabbat. We must treat others the way we want to be treated. There it is, that golden rule. The teaching that has permeated every culture, every society, every community around the world. Everyone, every-one believes (at least claims to believe) that everyone, every-one should be treated the way she/he wants others to treat her/him.

“V’ahavtah l’rei-echa kamocha.”  Love your neighbor (lit. “friend”) as you love yourself.  Hopefully it is easy to love our friends. Many rabbis expand the verse to include family members (hopefully this is easy, too) and even the other, the one you don’t know or perhaps haven’t even met. This is where the real work happens. When we can love, care for, acknowledge, respect and value the life of the other, the stranger, then we have truly fulfilled the mitzvah of loving the other.

I invite each of us to reflect on our breath and the power that we have to elevate and diminish. Let’s honor every breath through the intentionality by which we engage the other. What if we greeted one another as “Holy brother” and “Holy sister”? How might that create a closeness that has otherwise been difficult to establish? How might referring to one another as holy shift the way we behave? How much deeper and fuller might our personal “kedushah”/holiness be if we were to embrace with a full heart the holiness in the one who is not like us?

Let’s try it and see what happens.

“In blessing and respect, Laurie Phillips”


PhillipsProfoundly impacted by participation in the Brandeis Collegiate Institute in 1995, Laurie set out on a path to intentionally cultivate her own spiritual journey. Becoming a rabbi was an ideal way to merge her passion for Judaism and education after earning a BA in education and special education, as well as an MA in Leadership in Teaching, Curriculum and Supervision. During her time in rabbinical school, she participated in the Mandel Senior Educator program. Laurie was ordained by HUC, Los Angeles in 2003, and last year she completed the 3 year Rabbinic Leadership training provided by the Shalom Hartman Institute. Laurie has worked for JCC Association as the Associate Director for the Mandel Center for Jewish Education, co-creating “Lechu Lachem,” designed to immerse camp directors in a personal exploration of their relationship with Judaism. She served as the Director of Education for Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Congregation Habonim, transforming both into an energized, vibrant place for learning and growth. In collaboration with the Manhattan JCC and three other Manhattan synagogues, Laurie helped create and implement the Jewish Journey Project, a choice-based supplemental Jewish educational program for kids through middle school. Laurie is active in Kids4Peace, Vice President of MATAN, UPROOTED board member, and a trained birth doula. She is deeply committed to empowering women to reclaim mikveh through education and crafting individual experiences. Laurie is also a teacher of mindfulness and believes strongly that a regular practice involving silence and chanting can transform, nourish and heal. Laurie lives in Harlem with her husband Howard, step-son Adam, and their dog Daisy.
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