Be Holy, Earthlings
In this week’s double Torah portion - Acharei Mot, Kedoshim- we read a very famous verse,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1)
We have heard and read this verse so many times that for many of us, it’s been years since we’ve actually spent time examining this statement. So tonight, let’s do exactly that.
God is holy… so that means that we must be holy.
Ok… but why?
I think that the best, most compelling reason why God’s holiness would influence our own holiness is found not in Leviticus but in Genesis.
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ ...
And God created the earthling in God’s image, in the image of God, God created it… (Genesis 1:27)
From this verse, we understand that the very first human creature was made in the image of God… and with that knowledge, the statement, “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy,” comes into clearer focus.
God is holy, and because we are reflections of God, we are holy as well. Building on this verse, we can now understand that we are not holy because we are the spiritual descendents of the Israelites nor because God has chosen us in some way. Instead- we are holy because all human beings are inherently holy... because all human beings have been created in the image of a holy God.
Now, some of you may still be thinking about the fact that I translated ha-adam as “the earthling,” a minute or so ago. Most translations of Genesis 1:27 say that God created “the man” or “the human” in God’s image. But “the earthling” is by far my favorite translation because this first creature was not a man or a human in the way that we define or understand either of those words. The first creature was crafted from adamah, or earth, and, from the pronouns that are used in the second part of the verse, we know that the earthling was both male and female.
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
And God created the earthling in God’s image, in the image of God, God created it; male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27)
The rabbis explain in midrash that the first earthling was created with two faces and contained both a male and a female aspect. The midrashic stories go on to explain that the first creature- which had a complex gender identity and had been created as a true reflection of God- was later split into two beings.
This means that in the first chapter of Genesis, maleness and femaleness were not created separately but instead simultaneously. The earthling was a reflection of God when both of its genders were intertwined inside of a single creature.
This version of humanity’s creation may not be the one you are most familiar with. I certainly don’t remember hearing this version as a student in Sunday School. Instead, the version that I remember learning, and indeed the version that our tradition has highlighted for the last many millennia, is the creation story from the 2nd chapter of the book of Genesis. In the second version, God creates Adam and then realizes that Adam is lonely. (Genesis 2:18) God then creates the animals as companions for Adam, and Adam gives them all names but is ultimately not satisfied with their company.
Eventually, God puts Adam into a deep sleep, removes one of his ribs, and then creates a woman, Chava, or Eve, from that piece of Adam. In this second version of creation, a male creature is the original being and therefore the closest reflection of God. The female creature is a secondary reflection of that original form.
You may think that I’m reading far too much into this story, but even the linguistics used for different genders reflect the idea that male is primary and female is male-adjacent.
In Hebrew- man is Ish and woman is Ishah.
In English- we have man and woman, male and female.
In her excellent book, Engendering Judaism, the renowned scholar, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, argues, “We and God are characters in the foundational narratives that constitute the nomos, the universe of meaning in which we live as Jews...Without stories, there is no Judaism because without stories, there is neither the God of Israel nor Israel itself.” Dr. Adler continues, saying, “Story conveys the moral heft and heat that differentiates God as a living presence from the bodiless, passionless abstraction of the philosophers: A story is a body for God.”
“A story is a body for God.”
Those who have studied Torah with me have heard me explain that there are times when I get lost in my preparation or in my writing. In those moments, I imagine how different our beloved tradition would be if one biblical character had been elevated rather than denigrated… or if one biblical story had been emphasized instead of hidden.
This week, as I prepared for this sermon, I kept finding myself getting lost in those “what if” moments. Even as I watched and read news reports about the many, many anti-trans bills being considered, debated, and supported in legislatures all over this country, the words, “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy,” reverberated in my brain. I kept losing myself in imagining how different the world would be if our tradition and those that sprang from it had prioritized the first creation story- where the earthling was complex and a direct reflection of God- over the second, where a man was lonely and therefore a non-man was created.
What if Judaism had focused on the idea that the closest reflection of God was a creature that had been made from the earth and fell outside of what we now call the gender binary?
What if the tradition had embraced the first creation story, had lifted up the Talmudic identification of multiple genders, and had celebrated the idea that all people were an equal reflection of God and God’s holiness? How different would our world be?
And before you tell me that biblical stories have not shaped the way that people of all genders have experienced their faith and have understood themselves and their neighbors, I have to remind you that “A story is a body for God,” and for most of 3000 years, one story and therefore one body has been given prominence at the expense of all others.
We should be holy because God is holy. And what we could have learned from that first chapter of Genesis is that our holiness, our Godliness, is inextricably linked to our complexity.
If we had learned that lesson, we could have understood that attempts to misrepresent science and faith in order to argue that gender is strictly binary or to paint trans and nonbinary individuals- and especially children- as somehow less important, or less central to the story of civilization- are contrary to both our understanding of God and our commanded responsibility to be holy.
If we had learned that lesson, we could have understood that our holiness is a reflection of the One who created us. We could have known that every body, every spirit is already holy because every body and every spirit was created in the image of the Holy One. In that paradigm, holiness would not be something we had to achieve by our actions because it would be innate. It would shine from within us from our first moment to our last. If we had learned that lesson, we would have known that we are already holy because we are human… and our actions- rather than being the tools that could make us holy- were instead what could occlude or reveal our holy light.
A few years ago, as I reveled and wallowed in one of those “what if” moments, I wrote a midrash where I had Moses say what I believe our tradition might have taught if we had prioritized the first chapter of Genesis over the second. I share the words that I gave our greatest teacher with you tonight in the hopes that we will be inspired to lose ourselves in wondering how different the world would be… how different we would be if God had been given a different body, a different story.
These excerpts come from a midrash called, “The Story of Assir and Zimmah.” First we will hear as Moses speaks to his uncle, Hebron, one of the judges Moses had empowered to lead the Israelites, and then we will hear from Hebron as he considers how he misjudged both God and those God had created.
“...Moses paused and spoke to Hebron so quietly that no one ... but Assir and [Zimmah] were able to hear their conversation. ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘Remember that the God that we worship exists beyond all classifications and divisions. Our God created the entire world and filled it with wondrous and diverse creatures. Take care not to assign the limitations of your own mind to our God who is beyond such weakness.”
“Hebron nodded and began walking toward the entrance of the tent. Just as he was about to cross its threshold, he turned back to us, his eyes on the floor. ‘...I have more work to do in order to be worthy of such a [position of power]. Assir, Zimmah, I do not know the words that will convince you that I am sorry for the mistakes that I have made. I assumed that God is like me, instead of understanding that I should be like God. I have been worshipping an idol that I crafted from my own prejudices. I am grateful that Moses [has] acted as our ancestor Abraham once did, smashing the false gods that I had created in my mind and in my heart.”
Friends- we are called to be holy, and we are.
Each of us is a creative, powerful, complex creature and these qualities are reflections of our creator, the Holy One. The commandment to be holy because God is holy tells us that we should seek to reflect God rather than force God to reflect us.
On this Shabbat and always, let us reject the instinct to simplify and instead embrace complexity. Let us scour the tradition that we have inherited for the lessons that have been left behind, and let us commit to creating the lessons that we are missing.
Holiness and complexity are not only beautiful, they are divine.
May we seek out opportunities to celebrate and to protect all those who have been created in God’s image, all those whose identities are complex and rich and holy.
Let us be like the earthlings that God made as the truest reflection of Godself. Let us create and celebrate stories that give God bodies of all different types.
Let us smash the idols that we have created in our hearts and allow our holiness to shine through.
Ken Yehe Ratzon. May this be God’s will. And may this be our will. Amen.