I studied the most gorgeous text this morning from the Netivot Shalom (also known as the Slonimer, a.k.a. Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky). It's on the verse קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / kedoshim tihiyu, "y'all shall be holy."
The Slonimer teaches: the way we do that is first through strong boundaries and ethical choices. The first step in being holy as God is holy is having good boundaries and being scrupulously ethical in our interpersonal interactions.
That's the only part of holiness that we can control. That's how far we can go through our own strength. If we do that, then God meets us there and lifts us the rest of the way toward a more complete kind of holiness, a holiness in which our every act is sanctified and we ourselves become sanctuaries for God. But that higher level of holiness isn't possible unless we first do everything we can to steer clear of boundary transgressions.
The Slonimer cites a Noam Elimelech teaching that yir'ah (awe) is the vessel and ahavah (love) is the light that streams through it. And we know from our mystics that when there is light without a strong container to hold it, we wind up with broken vessels. When there is unbounded love without good boundaries -- when there is chesed without gevurah, or when chesed is overprivileged above gevurah -- we wind up with broken vessels. We wind up with unsafe communities.
Holiness comes through living with rigorous integrity and being scrupulous about ethics. We receive the gift of being lifted to that higher level of holiness when we respect the boundaries that can safely channel our love.
With gratitude to Rabbi Megan Doherty, my Slonimer hevruta.
Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017