On God and Being Holy

We have heard enough about quick and easy success. A few years ago the Brazilian rock band Titans worked on an album whose name was, “The Best Band of All Times from the Last Week”. Impressive, so modern, so vain… People who until yesterday did not know who you were, now consider you a great leader, charismatic, almost a saint. And yet just as suddenly, the “great leader of all times from last week” disappears into the sands of time.

On the other hand there is God. In recent years, at least in Brazil, we got used to calling God “The Eternal” every time YHVH appeared in Hebrew. To translate YHVH as The Eternal probably comes from the same inspiration that led to the composition of the religious poem Adon Olam. When we sing “Vehu Haiah, Vehu hoveh, Vehu ihieh betifarah” – And He was, and He is, and He will be, forever and ever”, we recognize that God lives at all times simultaneously, eternally.

According to Reb Zalman z”l, we are mistaken if we consider God only as a Being, no matter how special and unique He is/was/will be. According to Reb Zalman God is not only a Being who travels in time, for He existed even before time was created. If we rearrange the letters that form the so-called Unspeakable Name of God, we could understand God as He-Vav-Yod-He, Havaiah, The Existence. God is much more than a Being; God is a continuous process. God is the development of life, Who gives life to existence in all of its dimensions. When we try to “freeze” God in an instant of time in order to try to understand Him/Her as a Being, as an object, we fail to connect ourselves to Him and only have a relationship to an image – and as we know, an image is devoid of divinity, the same way a photograph does not match reality in all its magnitude.

If, on the other hand, we understand God as A Process that goes beyond the notions of time and space, our whole perspective could change. For the thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l, God, who created the Shabbat, is more verb than noun: therefore, it makes sense that the Shabbat is our Temple in Time, in which the sacred moments lived and shared with our friends and relatives turn to sanctify the place where we are.

We need to be humble to appreciate God in His/Her infinite dimensions, beyond time and space: more than the Eternal God, the Existence God. And if what is expected of man is to mirror God, humble before His/Her presence, Moses – Moshe Rabeinu – is seen as God’s greatest prophet, “the humblest of men”, as written in the Torah. Once, when called by God to lead the People of Israel, Moses reacted negatively, because he thought that he did not possess the necessary skills to lead his people, to save them from their past of slavery and take them to a future of freedom. However, over the years Moses went through a long process and turned into the leader that we all know. Moses did not become leader all of a sudden: to become a leader is a process that requires hard work, dedication, patience, stubbornness, optimism, persuasive speech, resilience, physical and emotional strength, and so on. None of this takes a couple of hours. All this is only acquired in the process of leading.

When Korach appeared and challenged Moses, he emerged as a populist savior – so common nowadays in Brazil, in the United States, in all the political fields around the world: “We are all saints, not just you, Moses!” He said. Quickly he won the empathy and support of 250 leaders, who until yesterday had not manifested themselves against Moses and Aaron. Korach probably got the sympathy of the common people, who always liked, at all times, strong slogans like this: “We are all saints”. Korach seemed to come with everything ready. What he did not understand is that leadership is not something given instantly. The leader and the leadership is constructed through a dedicated process over time. Leadership is an existential experience that borders – and sometimes transcends – the common sense perception of reality.

Here is a beautiful scene: Moses and Aaron gave Korach and his followers a day to reflect and, perhaps, to repent; but they did not. Then a challenge was proposed: pieces of wood would be given to opposition leaders on one side and to Aaron on the other. Whichever one were to flourish, its owner would be the winner. But we all know that a flower does not flourish from one time to another, from nothing.

Goethe, one of the best artists, writers and philosophers of all times, developed a very slow and organic method to observe a plant development process. The flourishing scene seems to me another teaching that Moses and Aaron gave to Korach and his followers. Like plants, the leadership must go through a slow process in time and in a fertile ground to flourish and develop itself.

True success is not instantaneous at all. The success of an enterprise comes from a succession of events, a succession of attitudes. Korach said “we are all holy”. God said, “You shall be holy”. Such is the Jewish way of life. We live in space and time,mevakshei derech, always searching for new ways. As Reform Jews, we prefer to be constantly in search of the Messianic Era, to build with our own attitudes the Road of Ethic Monotheism. We believe in the Progressive Revelation of Torah’s Wisdom, rather than in a ready text delivered at one time, three thousand years ago and counting. We believe that things do not fall from the sky, but require much dedication to happen.

In our prayers, particularly at the Amidah’s Kedushah, we say about God, as if insisting: “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, Holy, Holy, Holy!!!” And what does God say about us? “Kedoshim tihiu, Be holy”!

Let’s go through our ways and processes, as individuals and as communities, in order to become better people. That’s life, as is God, so we should be: to live in a constant process of improvement.


About the author: Rabbi Uri Lam currently serves Congregation Beth El in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Previously he served the Congregação Israelita Mineira (CIM) in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais State, Brazil, affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). He is a psychologist with a M.A. in Philosophy, and received his Semichah at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem. He is currently involved in the Rabbinical revision of Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition translation into Portuguese. Uri Lam translated several Jewish books into Portuguese, including Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed Parts 1 & 2 (Moreh Nevuchim), the first and only comprehensive translation into Portuguese; Part 3 is underway. Rabbi Lam is a member of the Council of Jews and Christians of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian Jewish-Catholic Dialogue, and was in Rome for the 50th Anniversary of the Nostra Aetate as one of the Brazilian members of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ).


The above formerly appeared as #331 in our Torah from Around the World Series.

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