Shaya Cohen -


What is the Opposite of Holiness?

It seems like a simple enough question, with an obvious-enough answer: the opposite of holiness is surely the profane. After all, we know that Moshe was buried “opposite” Pe’or, a cult that worshipped human effluence. And if Moshe stood for holiness (since, after all, G-d tells him that the place where he stands is holy!), then surely the Torah would also tell us that the opposite of holiness, elevation, would be debasement.

Except that it does not.

The Torah tells us repeatedly that we, G-d’s people, are to be holy, because G-d is holy. But only one time does it contrast the word for “holy” with an opposite:

And that ye may put difference between the holy and the common (“chol”), and between the unclean and the clean; (Lev. 10:10)

G-d is telling us that we are to separate between the holy and the common. But what is the meaning of the word, chol? Though it is often translated as “common” or “mundane”, the principle is that the best source of translation is the Torah itself.

The root of the word, chol, is found in the beginning of the Torah, in several instances.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth (Gen: 6:1)

And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the earth. (Gen: 10:8)

Chol does not mean common or mundane at all! It actually means what came first.

The way the Torah defines chol in the verses above is a raw state, a state of nature, of pre-civilization. It is a world before mankind started to improve on it. It is the beginning state.

Indeed, chol is the world the way G-d made it. So in the Torah, G-d is telling us that the world, as He made it in the first six days, was chol, that it was the very opposite of holiness. Why? Because nature is unfeeling, unthinking. It has its own rules, and absent input from G-d or man, it merely exists. Nature, the way the world was created, is essentially a very large and complex automaton. And that automaton, a universe in which neither G-d nor man is involved, does not fulfill any useful – holy – function, because it is incapable of improvement by itself.

In order for the chol to be improved, it needs the addition of creativity, of the application of G-d’s creative powers, expressed directly from Hashem – or, even better, through a combination of G-d and man such as through sacrifices in the Beis Hamkidash or through mankind’s direct act, as in the dedication of the firstborn. In these ways, we can create the most holy things identified in the entire Torah.

The Torah is telling us that the chol state must never be confused for holiness. The untrammeled natural state is not holy – they are to be kept separate, contrasted with each other! After all, worshipping something in nature is pure paganism: we are not supposed to confuse nature with its creator!

Our purpose, that of Judaism following the Torah, is to complete the G-d’s creation of the world, by creating, nurturing, and reinforcing the connections between the physical world and the spiritual world.

So while Moshe did indeed stand opposed to the religions that wallowed in filth and did not know the difference between human waste and divine service, even those religions are at a higher level than a pure, animalistic state of nature. The opposite of the holy is not the profane: it is the natural.

Comments are welcome!

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