You shall be holy, for I God am holy. So says the Torah. Rashi commented that the rest of the body of Torah depends upon this section. That is, the ritual and moral practices of Torah depend upon one another. Separating the law and the practice does damage to both, for together they create a system of meaning that allows us to fill our empty places.
Rashi goes on to say that in all places where Torah describes forbidden sexual practices, holiness is found as well. For example, when Leviticus forbids the Cohen from marrying a zonah (a woman who has committed adultery or incest), the next verse commands the Cohen to sanctify the offerings, “For I God am holy” (Leviticus 21:7-8). On the one hand, Rashi is reminding us that the path to holiness begins by limiting our desires. Only when I make value-driven choices about whom I sleep with, how I spend my money or what I eat can I find meaning in my life.
On the other hand, Rashi is warning us that we need more than just turning away from bad behavior. There has to be a substitution toward meaning, or the hole inside remains empty. Therapists make the same recommendation to their clients. Changing unhealthy habits requires replacing them with healthy ones.
A few months ago, I visited Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, a Jewish residential facility for recovering addicts. The work there is informed by Jewish values and help the residents rediscover that they, too, have the strength to turn toward holiness. One of the counselors, herself a recovering addict, led a session with my group. Addiction, she said, is taking a God-sized hole and filling it with a human substance. It never works, because the hole is too big.
This passage brings to mind the various current scandals of powerful men indulging their sexuality in inappropriate ways. Tiger Woods, about whom far too much has already been written, has a God-sized hole that he is trying to fill with the rush of excitement that comes from beautiful women desiring him and acting on that desire. He has insecurities and fears, just like everyone else, but hasn’t found healthy ways of addressing them.
When he golfs, he often swears at himself about himself. After a poor drive or putt, he will sometimes says, “You —- Tiger.” From the outside, this looks like a man whose self-worth comes from his success on the golf course and in the bedroom. And failures on the golf course resound inside again and again in painful ways. The adulation he receives for his incredible talent will never fill this God-sized hole in his soul. The only way to do that is to turn toward meaning. He ought to share his own fears and insecurities with his wife or friends. In striving to be perfect, he has fallen into a pit.
The recent scandals in the Catholic Church are even worse. They actively profane faith because of the bad behavior of certain priests. These priests have their own desires and insecurities and somehow manage to justify to themselves terrible behavior. Compounding the priests’ abuse of children is the hierarchy’s ongoing willingness to cover up the bad behavior and move the offending priests to other places. All the parties involved know the behavior to avoid; a great opportunity for holiness is destroyed by this failure.
If we are honest, it’s not just Tiger or the Catholic Church. We all have our God-sized holes that arise out of insecurities, fears and failings. The wounds that we have received in life leave their mark inside and create wounded places. Our natural tendency is to ignore these places, pretend that they don’t exist. When we do that, these holes feed our bad inclinations and result in terrible self-destructive behavior.
Torah is suggesting a different path. It is precisely in this so human place of emptiness, of potential bad behavior, where a great opportunity to discover meaning in our lives exists.
When I admit my own failings, my own imperfections, I reorient myself toward healthy behavior. I am filling that God-sized hole with God. And when that succeeds, I reconnect myself with meaning, with the possibility of being holy, for God is holy.
This is the first Torah column by Rabbi David Booth, the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at RabbiBooth@kolemeth.org.