If you were to try to define the word holy, without using Google or a dictionary, where would you start? Would you talk about a time in your life where you experienced holiness? Would you talk about God? Would you use high-level words like “sanctity” and “consecrated?” How would your definition change when speaking to a child? A friend? A stranger? What exactly is “holy?”

Like many other religions, we Jews frequently talk about holiness, and the ways we embrace, discover, or enhance it. But we don’t often describe holiness itself, instead choosing to focus on the effects of holiness we see in ourselves and in the world around us. Even the Hebrew word for holy קודש/kodesh is infinitely flexible depending on circumstance – in the Torah it’s used to describe the space around the Burning Bush and the special time in the week during which we are to celebrate Shabbat. It is the word for our blessing over ritual sweetness, the Kiddush. It is a nickname for God¸ HaKadosh. It can be a noun, verb, adjective, or really any other part of speech. And, it is the word used to describe each and every one of us in this week’s portion. God tells the Israelites, and through them us, “K’doshim t’hiyu…,” “all of you are to become holy, together, because I, Adonai your God, am holy.”

Sometimes, I try to imagine the Israelites’ reaction to God and God’s laws. I try to imagine myself as one of them. But even I struggle with imagining what it would be like to hear “You (yes, you) are holy.” If I had been there, hearing Moses say on behalf of God that I, and we, were holy I think I would have been some simultaneous mixture of confused, in awe, humbled, and incredulous. I don’t even really know what holy is, and now I’m being told that I am holy? How does that work?

But I think, like any good clue sleuth, the extensive use of the word kodesh/holy in our tradition gives us the opportunity to create a definition for ourselves. The Kiddush tells us that holiness is sweet. The burning bush tells us that holiness is miraculous. Shabbat tells us that holiness is unanxious. And, perhaps, we can learn the most about holiness in the way that we transition away from Shabbat. Our havdallah ritual includes four blessings, the last of which says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who separates the daily from the holy.” Or, translated another way, “…who separates the uniform from the unique.”

In studying the various forms of holiness in our lives, we begin to create a picture of our own holiness. How am I holy? How are you holy? How is anyone as holy as God commanded us to be? By being our own, unique, authentic, and truest selves we embrace our own natural holiness. We are a holy community, God’s Am Segulah (treasured people), because we embrace individual expression and celebrate the extraordinary way one-of-a-kind people bond with one another to better one another, to challenge and enhance one another. Holiness doesn’t have to be something far away, or impossible to define. In fact, we could probably define holiness using three simple words: 1- Me, 2- You, 3- Us.

Perhaps one of the best definitions I’ve heard of holiness comes in the form of a parable:

There was once a parent, exploring different Jewish communities for themselves and their children, trying to find the right fit. In the process, the parent met with the education director to get a tour of the school and its classes. The director brings the parent to take a glance inside some of the classrooms and on their first stop notice a child covered in paint and marker, surrounded by artistic chaos. The child notices the director and waves joyfully and emphatically. “Who’s that?” the parent asks. “That’s my only child,” the director responds.

The duo continue down the hall to another room and see another student, deep in a book reading aloud to themselves. The director opens the door, the student looks up, smiles, and waves. “Who’s that?” the parent asks. “That’s my only child,” the director responds.

Another classroom, and another student. This time the student is helping another build a tower of bricks. The two are carefully debating and placing one block on top of another, considering architectural integrity and aesthetics. They see the parent and director watching them and shout hello, knocking some of the higher bricks down. “Who’re they?” the parent asks. “They are my only child,” the director responds.

“I don’t understand,” the parent says. “You just said you have four only children. How does that work?”

The director responds, “You see, none of those are my biological children. But I love them, care for them, and notice them as if they were my own. Each one is special. Each one sees the world in a different way. Each one has something to teach me. Without any one of them, I would not be complete. Every student here is my only child, and I treasure them all accordingly.”

When God describes us and commands us to be holy, God becomes our “education director,” telling us how deeply God sees and cares for us. We are holy because we are all “only children” amongst “only children.” We notice holiness when we notice that unique quality in every individual. K’doshim t’hiyu…All of us are holy, each in our own way.