Too Distracted: Understanding the Lack of Kedushah in Our Lives

At Mount Sinai, when God first hinted to us what it would be like to live Torah lives, He promised: “You will be a kingdom of priests and a goy kadosh—a holy nation.”(1)Now, 3,300 years later, what adjectives most accurately describe our daily experience? Many might sum up their existential reality with terms like “harried” and “pressured.” A few might describe their lives as generally “joyous” or “fulfilling.” A tiny minority might go so far as to say that their lives are often “moral” or even “heroic.” But how many of us feel that significant chunks of our existence are kadosh—holy? Is it possible that we unknowingly live lives of kedushah, or are we a generation that has begun to lose contact with the very essence of what it means to be a Jew?

Defining Kedushah and Tumah

What exactly is kedushah? A superficial survey of Talmudic sources lends the impression that kedushah is the opposite of tumah. However, this does not clarify matters much since it is difficult to define tumah in concrete or practical terms. Rashi offers an extremely helpful clue to define both terms. In his commentary on the Torah(2), Rashi reveals that God spoke to the gentile prophets using lashon tumah (impure language) but He spoke to Moses using lashon chibah (affectionate language). Both chibah (affection) and kedushah are the opposite of tumah. Therefore affection and kedushah must be related. Perhaps kedushah is some sort of closeness or intimacy.

Describing the ideal relationship with God, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) reinforces this impression. Writing in the 26th chapter of Messilat Yesharim, Ramchal defines kedushah as a state in which a person, “even in the midst of performing those physical acts necessary to sustain his body, never strays from the highest intimacy.” According to Ramchal, kedushah is a state in which there are no distractions. It is an experience in which a person becomes so fully united with God that all else is irrelevant. It is the state described by David HaMelech, “My soul clings to You.”(3)

If kedushah is intimacy, then its opposite, tumah, would be distance and disconnection. Lashon hara— speech that destroys relationships—is inherently tamei and during Biblical times produced visible leprous lesions requiring quarantine and ritual purification.(4) Whenever a human ovum or sperm is discharged separately, instead of coming together to form a new unity, there is tumah.(5) When body and soul part, there is tumah.(6)

In a comment far deeper than we are likely to comprehend, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe writes, “Kedushah is the preservation of the unity of the worlds, and tumah is the ‘troublemaker who separates close-ones.’”(7)The reference to a “troublemaker who separates close-ones” is borrowed from Mishlei,(8)and classical commentaries offer various interpretations: according to Rashi, the “troublemaker” is a gossiper who separates himself from God; according to Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, it is men who inspire violence and cause a breakdown in all social relations; and according to the Vilna Gaon, it is one who destroys a relationship between a man and his wife. According to all, the “troublemaker”— what Rabbi Wolbe defines as tumah— is distance; implying that its opposite, kedushah, is closeness.

Creating Intimacy

Paradoxically, creating intimacy requires separation. First we must remove all that can come between us and our beloved. In parshat Kedoshim(9)God proposes, “Be my kedoshim,” and Rashi explains the offer: “If you separate yourselves from the other peoples, then you will be mine.” Similarly, a man draws a woman close through kiddushin, a process which forbids her to all other suitors.(10)According to Ramchal,(11)we take the first step towards personal kedushah by separating ourselves from those physical indulgences that would distract us from the One we love. The common theme in all these initial steps towards kedushah is the removal of distractions and elimination of interference. Absolute connection requires two surgically sterile surfaces.

Achieving kedushah seems to be a twostep process, however. Ramchal explains: “Its beginning is labor and its end reward; its beginning is exertion and its end a gift. It begins with one sanctifying himself and ends with his being sancti- fied.”(12)By actively removing distractions, we create a space in our lives for real intimacy. All we can do is prepare the ground. The closeness that is kedushah— be it between man and God, between human beings, or between body and soul—is a gift from the Holy One.

Making Room for a Beloved

It is beginning to become apparent why we might feel a lack of kedushah in our lives. There is not a lot of space for intimacy. There is not a lot of room for closeness. Never has a generation been more bombarded with distractions, with troublemakers who separate close-ones, in a word, with tumah. Sometimes we allow technology to get in the way of kedushah. Once upon a time women only had to battle the television and newspaper for their husbands’ attention, and no one would dream of listening to the radio during the chazzan’s repetition. Today the Internet holds the attention of all but the most devoted husbands (and wives), and worshippers routinely scan the stocks and headlines on their Palm Pilots between Kedushah and Kaddish. Cell phones and pagers, ostensibly created to enhance connectivity, follow us into the shul, beit midrash, and most private quarters of our homes, shattering the intimate moments that make life worth living. Sometimes we allow food to get in the way of kedushah. We love sweet things; we love fattening things. We use that word without realizing the frightening truth it conveys. Too often we are so distracted by the chocolate chip cookies, that we don’t notice the spouse who made them for us. Too often we are so distracted by the myriad kosher restaurants and products available to us—and the gustatory experience they promise—that we don’t notice the real Mashgiach behind the banquet. If only we studied the bencher with as much kavanah as we study the menu.

Often we allow clothing, housing, career, and an endless list of other troublemakers to come between us and real intimacy. Perhaps a normal Jew living in the twenty-first century can only experience kedushah by stepping back from these distractions. It is possible that the ancient formula for achieving connection—“ Kedoshim tihiyuPrushim tihiyu(13)—never deserved more attention than in this most modern of generations.

A Practical Plan for Achieving Kedushah

The sober reality is that we cannot have the best of both worlds. Selfish indulgence raised to the level of addiction interferes with closeness. Those involved in the treatment of alcoholics, narcotics addicts, and compulsive overeaters have long known this. We need to create more space and time for those whom we want to love. We need to break modernity’s mesmerizing stranglehold so that we can refocus on relationships. We don’t necessarily have to make sweeping changes in our lifestyle tomorrow. Indeed, almost without exception, real spiritual progress happens in tiny but consistent steps forward. But we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by the onslaught of diversions we are exposed to throughout our waking hours and expect to focus simultaneously on a significant other. The pursuit of kedushah doesn’t demand that we rid ourselves of cell phones and pagers, although it might require that we turn them off during certain crucial hours every day. Used intelligently, certain technologies, like answering machines and voice-mail services, can even help create the privacy and quiet necessary for kedushah to flourish. Breaking our food fascination doesn’t require abandoning Chinese cuisine or Ben and Jerry’s, but it might help to limit such indulgences to Shabbat, chaggim (holidays), and other smachot (happy occasions) that help us focus less on the repast and more on God and our loved ones. Many Jews already concentrate their clothing purchases in the periods around the chaggim; more rigorous adherence to this regimen would free us from ritual puttering around the mall and chronic rifling through clothing catalogs and advertising supplements during the interim months. Although we don’t need to walk away from a successful career in order to live a life of kedushah, we might need to make room in our professional schedules for Shacharit, Minchah, and Maariv, daily Torah learning, and perhaps even dinner with the kids.

This is not an exhaustive or universally applicable list of recommendations; nor can all of these be instituted at once. But we could make it a family to take one small, practical step towards kedushah every Rosh Hashanah. The effects of such a minhag over a five or ten year period are probably beyond anything we can imagine.

A Holy Nation

Several years ago, a secular single woman joined my family for the Shabbat meal on Friday night. She sat very quietly watching us talk, laugh, and sing. At the end of the evening, she turned to me and with burning seriousness asked how I managed to have such warm relationships with my wife and children. Like many people growing up at this point in human history, this Jewish woman had never seen kedushah, and it shook her. The truth is that virtually every Orthodox Jew has real kedushah in his or her life. We have Shabbat. We have chaggim. During these special times, we withdraw from distractions and try to focus more on God and family. Kashrut limits our culinary indulgences, just as limits the sort of clothing we can purchase. The intricate halachic systems that we allow to structure our lives create some time and space for closeness. God told us “You will be a kingdom of priests and a goy kadosh,” and we often experience the fulfillment of that promise. We would just like to experience it a bit more. If we make a courageous commitment today, perhaps next Rosh Hashanah we will look back on this year and declare: “Its beginning was labor and its end reward; its beginning was exertion and its end a gift. It began with our sanctifying ourselves and ended with us being sanctified.”


(1) Shemot 19:6.
(2)Vayikra 1:1.
(3)Tehillim 69:3.
(4)Vayikra 13.
(5) Vayikra 15. A man becomes tamei even when conception occurs, since most of his sperm is still discharged in a state of “separation.”
(6)Bamidbar 19.
(7)Olam HaYedidut, p. 37, based on commentary of Rabbi Menachem Recanati on Shemot 20:14.
(9) Vayikra 20:26.
(10) Kiddushin 2b.
(11)Messilat Yesharim, chapter 26.
(13)Midrash Torat Cohanim on Vayikra 19:2.

by  Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen
Posted in: Jewish Beliefs & Philosophy