01/02/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

The Jewish Perspective on Holiness

Judaism is a radically non-dualistic religion. It sees that everything emanates from, and is animated by, the same Source, which in English we call God. Judaism categorically rejects the idea that physicality is inherently in conflict with spirit, or that the body and physical activities are less sacred than the soul and religious activities. This non-duality is made clear by the first prayer that Jews recite as they enter a place of worship. This prayer, commonly referred to as Ma Tovu (from its first two Hebrew words), comes from the Book of Numbers, and begins with the words:

"How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel."

Surprisingly, these words were first said by the pagan priest Bilaam, who was sent by Balak, the King of Midian, to curse the Israelites in the wilderness. When Bilaam saw the Israelite tents, though, words of blessing came out instead of curses. But this is a strange blessing. At first reading it appears to be redundant. Aren't tents and dwelling places the same thing? And isn't Israel just another name for Jacob? When examined in Hebrew, though, these words begin to reveal their meaning.

Jacob -- Yaakov in Hebrew -- comes from the root word for "heel." He was given this name because he was born holding on to his twin brother Esau's heel, as if trying to pull Esau back so that he would come out first. The name Jacob, then, represents our physical yearnings and the competition for resources. And Israel -- Yisrael in Hebrew -- literally means "God wrester." This is the name that was given to Jacob after his night-long battle with a mysterious being, in which Jacob's hip was wrenched. The name Israel, then, represents our spiritual longings and our desire to understand the purpose of our lives; and the fact that these longings will wrench something in us.

Similarly, a tent -- ohel in Hebrew -- is a structure that is built to care for our corporeal needs. Like our bodies it is a solid, but temporary edifice, and so is associated with physicality. And the word for "dwelling place" -- mishkan in Hebrew -- shares the same root as the word for God's in-dwelling presence -- Shechinah -- which is embedded in our soul, and so represents our non-physical, spiritual nature.

This prayer, then, tells us that both essential aspects of our being are good: our bodies and our souls -- the temporary and the eternal. It is appropriate that we say these words when first entering a prayer service so that we will bring all of ourselves to our prayers, with the knowledge that all is good, and that even those things that appears to be opposite are, in actuality, manifestation of the Divine. This theme percolates through all Jewish thought, and through all Jewish law.

The essence of Jewish teachings are to constantly remind us that our eternal souls have agreed to incarnate in temporary bodies in order to accomplish something meaningful and transformative in the physical word. Judaism tells us that we can accomplish this task through the actions and intentions of the mitzvot (plural for mitzvah).

Although many people think of a mitzvah as a "good deed," a mitzvah is literally a "commandment" -- it is something that we must to do, in accordance with the Jewish understanding of the Bible. While some are purely ritualistic (like lighting Sabbath candles or following the dietary restriction), the mitzvot are predominantly activities that we do in order to open our hearts to others and to improve the world. This includes giving money to the needy, telling the truth, honoring our families and communities, being faithful to our commitments, being kind to animals, treating the Earth with respect, improving our minds, sharing our knowledge, healing the sick, comforting the bereaved, asking those that we have hurt for forgiveness, forgiving others, and thanking all who have contributed to our lives. These physical acts, done in our everyday environments, are how we bring holiness to the world, and how we make our lives a blessing.

From a Jewish perspective, then, holiness is not something that can only happen separate from the world in soulful prayer and meditation. Holiness is something that can -- and must -- occur at every moment of our lives, as we choose to act from our highest selves in service to others, instead of indulging our urges toward selfishness or apathy. This choice does not come from a momentary good feeling or from guilt and shame, but is a deliberate and systematic mechanism for growth and contribution; the more difficult the challenge, the greater is the impact, and the holier is the act.

May 2014 be a year in which we all work to bring holiness in to the world, and may all of our lives be a blessing.