Kol Nidre 2018: reaching for holiness

Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the year. In tomorrow morning’sservice, many of us will read from the Holiness Code in Leviticus: “Holy you shallbe, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” What does “to be holy” mean exactly? In one of his most famous commentaries, the sage Nachmanides explains: “Holiness means curbing even permitted activities. For example, a person may keep strictly kosher but consume food like a glutton. Another may adhere rigorously to the laws of proper sexual relations but fornicate like a rooster”—his words—“or he may spout vulgarity and/or assault others verbally, even though no commandment in the Torah specifically proscribes his speech.”

Consider the transgressions enumerated in the Vidui, the traditional longconfessional we are about to recite in the Evening Service. Most of them cite conduct that the Torah does not explicitly prohibit. “We have sinned against Youby being stubborn and obstinate… We have sinned against You by judging othersrashly… We have sinned against You in food and drink… We have sinned against You through sexual immorality…” These behaviors are unethical but notnecessarily illegal. It’s noteworthy that so many of them have to do with improper speech: “We have sinned against You by speaking ill of others… We have sinned against You by gossiping about others… We have sinned against You through idle chatter…”

In the same vein, the ethical discipline known as Mussar aims at refining one’s character beyond what the Torah stipulates. The Lithuanian Rabbi Yisrael Salanter popularized Mussar in the nineteenth century, but its roots go back to the Middle Ages, in Jewish philosophical treatises that explored human nature, and earlier, to Talmudic ethical teachings and maxims. One applies Mussar by pursuing a set of positive personality traits known as middot—such as humility, patience, gratitude, equanimity, generosity, trust, and so on. One reinforces the practice through daily reminder phrases, text study, journaling, meditation, accountability to a fellow -practitioner, and behavioral commitments known as kabbalot—to name a few of the techniques developed by the masters of Mussar.

Alan Morinis, who founded the American Mussar Institute, describes the connection between Mussar and holiness in his book Everday Holiness: “The starting point for understanding Mussar is the verse in Torah: ‘you shall be holy.’ Interestingly, when the rabbis combed through the Torah to seek out the 613 commandments that form the backbone of Jewish life, none of the codifiers included ‘you shall be holy’ on the list. Our spiritual pursuits form the all-encompassing goal of our lives, so this injunction can’t be brought down to the level of an ordinance. ‘You shall be holy’ is not so much a command but advice, encouraging us to heed and act on the ambition implanted within all of us to make something better of our lives. The Torah’s counsel is aimed directly at the soul.”

In short, “holy you shall be” is a kind of meta-commandment that overarches all the other commandments. Like engaging in teshuvah, reaching for holiness means going beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. In keeping with one of Lesley’s stated goals for her presidency, as well as my own vision of fostering sacred community, this year we plan to systematically introduce Mussar principles into our communal vocabulary at Beth Shalom. Beginning in October, a different middah each month will be promoted through bulletin articles, remarks from the bimah, at Board meetings, and on the website. Later the Middah-a-Month program might expand through art displays and community workshops. Mussar can focus uson qualities of spirit that enhance and strengthen our communal endeavors, in keeping with the vision of the synagogue as a set of sacred relationships and acts, rather than a collection of services and offerings. In other words, it’s not just what we do but how we do it. Just as the commandments comprise the vehicle by which God (asher kidshanu be-mitzvotav) elevates the Jewish people at large to holiness, may the activities we perform characterize, and continue to characterize, Congregation Beth Shalom as a community that reaches for holiness.