True, it doesn’t come immediately to mind when we think about the qualities we most want to possess. It doesn’t typically top the list of the morally refined character traits that we work to cultivate in ourselves. But let’s not overlook the modest, simple quality of awareness. Because awareness is apparently next to holiness.
The sage Rabbi Hoshaya taught that “at the time that the Holy One created the first human being, the ministering angels erred and sought to say ‘Holy, Holy, Holy….before him (as they do daily before God). So what did the Holy One do? ‘He cast upon him deep sleep’ [Genesis 2:21] and then the angels knew that he was merely human.” (B’raishit Rabba 8:10)
The internal logic of this teaching is not immediately clear. How would sleepiness demonstrate that the human is less holy than God? The assumption that Rabbi Hoshaya is working with is that holiness is characterized by maximal awareness – awareness of everything that is going on around one, awareness that never flags and is never compromised. God who neither sleeps nor slumbers is therefore holy, and we humans, who have no choice but to surrender to sleep on a periodic basis, are less holy. And it’s not just our sleepiness that hampers our awareness. We each know well from daily experience, that we are highly vulnerable to distractions of all kinds, that we are drawn a little too deeply into the awareness of ourselves and our own needs, and that we’re just plain not very perceptive all the time. Our holiness, Rabbi Hoshaya teaches, is compromised by our lapses of awareness. Thus when first human being falls asleep, the ministering angels are set straight.
But this is clearly not the end of the story. After all, God clearly instructs in Vayikra, “You should be holy, just as I, God, am holy”. This call to holiness is the call to consciously develop, expand, and deepen our awareness of the things and of the people around us. It is a profound call that we can respond to both retrospectively and prospectively. When something has gone wrong on our watch as the result of our having been unaware of the needs of the hour or the needs of the person who was in front of us, we need to resist the temptation to hold ourselves blameless (“after all, I was unaware!”) and to instead realize that our unawareness was probably the outcome of some decision that we had made along the line. God’s call to holiness beckons us to not be defensive in situations like these, to accept critique, and to take a hard look at what it was that we not-so-benignly excluded from our awareness.
And prospectively, God’s call to holiness requires us to actively cultivate our awareness of the people around us, of their needs, their emotions, and their hopes. We do so through making a habit of listening more attentively, through being more curious, through getting outside of ourselves a little more and freeing up energy to be aware of others.
Awareness isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we contemplate the meaning and content of personal holiness. But I’d bet then we think of the people we know who regard as holy, we are thinking about people who are deeply and continuously aware of all that is unfolding around them.