To find out where you are, you unfold a map and find coordinates called latitude and longitude. To discover when you are there, you consult your watch and obtain a moment in time. But how do you compute the importance of being where you are when you are?
Importance is usually a relative term which invites the question, “Important for what?” For getting a job? For closing a deal? For seeing friends?
These questions prompt deeper ones: How important are the job, the deal, the friends? What if we lose our job? If the deal disappears? If friends fail us? Choose one of the following: “If I don’t get there in time, the deal will go sour,” “…I’ll miss the performance,” “…I’ll be late for class,” “…my wife will kill me.” These are not unimportant things but even if we are in the right place at the right time, can we guarantee the results?
What if the deal goes bad anyway, if we fail the class, if our relationships are drained of the love that once pervaded them? Are we, then, completely bereft? Is happiness dependent on personal needs whose satisfaction we are unable to guarantee?
We have been sold the faulty concept of a needy self that requires being eternally refilled, replenished, and reserviced. If business goes sour or love fails, society just offers us another source of service: a therapist, perhaps, or sleeping pills, both of which, we all know, may also fail. And then what?
Judaism denies this deprivation theory of what makes us tick. Of course we cannot do forever without at least some money, friends, health, and love, but they are just what we have, not what we are. Judaism’s radical idea is that at our core, we are holy, meaning we are like God, which is to say that deep down inside, we need nothing external at all.
“There is a first cause,” says Maimonides, speaking of God, “such that were it not to exist, nothing else could exist either, but were everything else to perish, it alone would still survive.” We are not actually God, of course, only like God, so we are, in part, the needy beings we imagine. We will die without food and water, waste away without laughter, become hardened without love. “No man is an island,” John Donne properly said.
But there come moments when we intuit that we might just possibly go on with nothing needed, nothing lacking, nothing nagging from within; that our incessant appetites — the holes deep inside that yearn to be filled — our insecurities, and our fears need not drive us; for, being holy, like God, we need not measure our importance by our appetites. The measure of true human importance lies in our being created with the capacity just to be and to marvel at the miracle of being.
Latitude and longitude define position. Temporality defines duration. Holiness defines importance, ultimate importance, the importance that comes from our kinship with the divine.
It would be nice to be able to pinpoint more precisely what holiness is. The problem is that words fail us when discussing the holy; our language, after all, is designed for describing the usual parameters of latitude, longitude, and duration. It is easier to say what holiness is not: it is independent of time and place. Insofar as we are like God, we can escape the treadmill of seeking, through achievement, to be fed from outside ourselves.
That lesson comes home to us in this week’s announcement of Shabbat. Most people mistake Shabbat as a negative thing: a list of activities that must not be engaged in and work that may not be done. Indeed, a cursory reading of this week’s sedra sustains that reading, when, repeatedly, we are warned against desecrating the Sabbath. But the deeper message, so easily missed, is the rationale for abstaining from work in the first place: “[Shabbat] is holy to you…. It is holy to God…. I, your God, sanctify you [with it].” Shabbat is holy to God, and, therefore, holy to us. God, as it were, shares it with us as a joint venture in not just doing but being.
Shabbat is not a moment in time but a moment out of time. It is similarly independent of space, for it is literally placeless — we have no words to locate it; it has no location. Shabbat is pure holiness, as pure as we get, at any rate — a taste of the world to come, as the sages describe it, which is to say, a taste of sacred perfection, a taste of needing nothing.