“It’s not FAIR!” screamed the toddler having a temper tantrum.
Tough on his mother, to be sure, but when an adult political leader uses the same word which is not only without definition but also without meaning, the consequences can be far more serious. Another oft-used word whose definition and meaning is also obscure is the word ‘holy’. There are countless phrases like holy land, holy orders, holy wars, and holy grail.
But what does holy mean? In order to find out, I propose that we examine the Hebrew word for holy in the one and only instance that it is found in conjunction with one of the most easily understood words in Scripture–water. That’s right, the phrase holy water, or in Hebrew, ‘MaYiM KeDoSHim’ is found only once.
As befits a word that is central to human existence, MaYiM, the Hebrew word for water, appears numerous times throughout the Five Books of Moses. Yet only once does it appear with the adjective usually translated as ‘holy.’ Numbers 5:17 reads:
“And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel…”*
Our imagination runs wild. For what purpose would we use holy water? Should this be the water used to wash the priests hands? Water for sacrifices? Water used to purify sinners? Its actual use seems strange and even strikes a discordant note. It is to be made into a drink given to a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery. God will reveal the truth through her reaction to the water, either leading to her death if she is guilty or to her elevation if she is innocent.
This ceremony only existed during the period in which God openly performed miracles. So what can we learn from it about our lives today?
We are told that the water is declared holy because it was gathered in the special basin created for the Tabernacle out of women’s mirrors (Exodus 38:8). God directed Moses to have that basin built from mirrors used by the Israelite women in Egypt to beautify themselves in order to seduce their husbands. Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that Moses was a bit squeamish about this. After all, does a makeup mirror really belong in the holiest of places? According to God, that is exactly where it belongs.
Life can be tough. It was certainly so as slaves in Egypt. Credit is given to the women of that generation who refused to despair. When their husbands were being emasculated and worn down, when the men saw bringing babies into the world as an act of futility, the women stayed strong. They beautified themselves and went out into the work fields in order to seduce their husbands. Using these very mirrors, they framed their own and their husbands’ faces as if to say, “Ignore the external surroundings. What is important is the two of us.” When it came time to create the Tabernacle basin, God saw these mirrors as holy items to be used.
The Hebrew word used here in Number 5:17 is KaDoSH – ש-ד-ק. That word is used in a number of circumstances in Jewish life, to stress separating something for a special purpose. For example, we sanctify the Shabbat on Friday night by saying KiDuSH, a prayer separating the Shabbat from the other days of the week. The first part of the Jewish wedding ceremony is called KiDuSHim; it separates the bride, making her forbidden to men other than her husband.
Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that, metaphorically speaking, the Tabernacle’s altar sheds tears whenever a couple divorces. When a couple dedicates themselves to each other, God rejoices. Little is more important than marriage and family. Baseless jealousy as well as infidelity are poisons that destroy. Water that is drawn from a basin created from marital devotion and used to allay or confirm doubts of adultery is indeed KaDoSH. It is set aside to safeguard the continuation of a nation as only loving marriages committed to the future can do.
We have immense difficulty today separating time and things for special purposes. Thanks to incredible technology, distractions tantalize us while we are in conversation with God, friends, spouses and children. Our culture shouts that marriage and children are optional and, in fact, hindrances. We are lured into thinking that nothing should be private but rather that everything should be shared with friends and strangers alike. Let us take a lesson and realize that even something as common as water can be holy. How much more a marriage? So easily taken for granted by a husband or a wife, the miracle of marriage is so holy that it conveys its essence even to the water used to preserve it.
*In our recommended Bible
Holy water – מים קדשים, p. 420, 9th line, 3rd and 2nd words from the left. (Hebrew reads right to left)
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