The Special Spirituality of the Jew
Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky
1. How Does One Maintain the Vibrancy of Torah?
The Torah tells us that Moshe officiated as the Kohen (Priest) in the
Mishkan (Sanctuary) for the first seven days of its inauguration. On the
eighth day, Moshe was told by Hashem to install Aaron and his sons to be
the Kohanim. The Torah states regarding Aaron and his sons, "At the
entrance of the Tent of Meeting shall you dwell day and night for a
seven-day period, and you shall protect Hashem's charge so that you will
not die; for so have I (Moshe) been commanded. Aaron and his sons carried
out (vaya'aas) all the matters that Hashem commanded through Moshe."
During the first seven days of inauguration, all that Aaron and his sons
were required to do was to remain in the Tent. The Torah nevertheless,
extols them for carrying out all that Hashem had commanded them through
Moshe. What was the praiseworthiness of Aaron and his sons? During this
period, there was no proactive stance that was needed. All that was asked
of them was to remain in a passive state. Rashi cites Chazal who state
that Aaron and his sons were being praised because "they did not deviate to
any degree, not to the right or to the left." How do we understand this?
The Yalkut explains "Vaya'aas Aaron ubanov - Aaron and his sons carried
out..." to mean that Aaron and his sons rejoiced with every word that was
commanded to them by Moshe. When Moshe communicated to them the word of
Hashem, they valued his words as if they were communicated directly from
G-d Himself and they felt fortunate.
It is important to note that one feels differently when one is asked to
perform a task directly by the king rather than from his emissary. Aaron
and his sons valued Moshe's words as if they came directly from G-d and
thus were overjoyed with this communication. This is the praiseworthiness
of Aaron and his sons indicated by "Vaya'aas Aaron ubanov..."
At Sinai, Moshe communicated the Torah to the entire Jewish people - a
population of millions. Chazal tell us that at Sinai when Moshe spoke to
the Jewish people, it was the Voice of the Divine Presence that emanated
from the "throat of Moshe." Thus, it was the equivalent of hearing the
Voice of Hashem. However, regarding Aaron and his sons, they had only heard
Moshe communicating to them the Word of G-d. Nevertheless, they received
this communication as if it were being directly communicated by G-d Himself.
We say in the Shema, "Let these matters that I command you today (ha'yom)
be upon your heart." The Gemara interprets the word "ha'yom - today" to
mean, "They should be in your eyes as if they were new." Despite the fact
that the Torah was given at Sinai thousands of years ago, one should relate
to it as if it were given to him today. Is the significance of "newness"
vis-à-vis the Torah an issue of retaining"specialness" about the Torah or
is it something else? With our understanding of "Vaya'aas," regarding the
perception and internalization of Aaron and his sons, we are able to
understand the meaning of "I command you ha'yom - (today)." When we
experience the Torah, it should be as if Hashem communicated it Himself to
us today (as at Sinai).
If one experiences the mitzvos as if he himself had heard them at Sinai
directly from Hashem, they would be valued to such a degree that one could
not be distracted from them. "Ha'yom" does not only mean that the mitzvos
should be novel or special because they were recently given, but rather one
should experience them in the most special way because we should view them
as if they were directly communicated to us by Hashem - as Aaron and his
2. The Ability to Appreciate Tragedy
On the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Sanctuary), Aaron and
his sons officiated as the Kohanim (Priests). The Torah states, "Vayhi
ba'yom ha'shmini - It was on the eighth day, Moshe summoned Aaron and his
sons..." The Gemara in Tractate Megillah tells us that whenever Scripture
uses the term "Vayhi ba' yom- It was on that day" it is to indicate tragic
events. The Gemara tells us that although on the eighth day of the Mishkan
Hashem rejoiced to the same degree that He had at the time of creating
heaven and the earth, nevertheless the Torah uses an expression to indicate
tragedy because on that day Nadav and Avihu (the sons of Aaron) died.
The eighth day of the Mishkan was not only the day that Aaron and his sons
officiated as Kohanim, it was also the day that the Shechina (Divine
Presence) entered into the Mishkan. The Torah tells us that when the
Shechina descended, which expressed itself as fire that consumed the
offerings, the Jewish people sang out and prostrated themselves. At that
moment, Nadav and Avihu brought forth fire pans for an offering to Hashem
(when they should not have done so). Because of their improper behavior,
the Torah states, "A fire came forth from Hashem and consumed them (Aaron's
sons), and they died before Hashem. Moshe said to Aaron: Of this did Hashem
speak, saying, "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest to Me,
thus I will be honored before the entire people. And Aaron remained
silent." Indicating that the death of Aaron's sons was a Kiddush Hashem
(Sanctification of G-d's Name).
Rashi cites Chazal who explain that Moshe initially understood that
Hashem's Name would be sanctified by the death of one who is closest to
Him. Moshe said to Aaron, "Initially I had thought it would be either you
or me to bring about this sanctification through our death. However, after
the death of Nadav and Avihu I understand that they are greater than us."
How was the death of Aaron's sons a sanctification of G-d's Name? Secondly,
why did the sanctification of G-d's Name need to occur precisely at the
time when Hashem's Presence, the Shechina, entered into the Mishkan?
Since G-d is the All Merciful One, how is taking the person who is closest
to Him (Hashem) a sanctification of His Name? It seems contradictory. Why
did Hashem's Judgment come upon the sons of Aaron at the same moment that
He was demonstrating His intimate relationship with the Jewish people?
Evidently, this is a clear indication that one can only have an intimate
relationship with Hashem (G-d's Presence in our midst) if one conducts
himself in accordance with His Will. Because Aaron's sons acted in an
inappropriate context, they could not be allowed to live. They were made an
example of in order to communicate this message.
Reb Meir Simcha of Dvinsk z'tl in his work Meshech Chochmah explains that
at Sinai the Jewish people reached the pinnacle of their spirituality when
they said "Naaseh V'nishma - We will do and we will listen." This statement
indicated that that they were negated to the point that all that mattered
was the Will of G-d. Because of this declaration, Hashem bestowed two
crowns upon the Jewish people (levels of spirituality) - one for "Naaseh"
and one for "Nishmah." As a result, of the sin of the Golden calf the
Jewish people were forced to relinquish their crowns. Thus, they were no
longer worthy to have the Shechina dwell in their midst.
According to Reb Meir Simcha, Hashem's forgiveness to the Jewish people
came about through Moshe beseeching Him. Hashem saw that the Jewish people
did not fully appreciate and understand the basis for being forgiven. They
did not attribute it to their teshuvah (repentance) but rather to the fact
that G-d chose to look away (Hashem turned a blind eye to their past
behavior). However, viewing G-d as a judge who is not fully equitable was
considered a chillul Hashem (a desecration of His Name). The Gemara tells
us in Tractate Bava Kama that if one says that G-d looks away and does not
evaluate every aspect of behavior within the context of Judgment, he
deserves to forfeit his life. Therefore, this misperception of G-d needed
to be corrected at all costs.
Reb Meir Simcha explains that Hashem chose the moment of the Shechina
entering into the midst of the Jewish people, to dispel their
misconception. As perfect as one may be and as insignificant as one may
perceive a spiritual failing (sin) to be, there is nothing that G-d
overlooks. This was proven through the death of Nadav and Avihu, the two
most special sons of Aaron. When they brought the unauthorized incense
offering, G-d immediately meted out His Justice. When Moshe told his
brother Aaron that G-d had said, "I will be sanctified through those who
are closest to Me," the Torah tells us that Aaron remained silent. Meaning,
Aaron understood that through the death of his sons, a sanctification of
Hashem came about. Consequently, the Jewish people had an appreciation and
an understanding that G-d is equitable and does not allow anything to be
Moshe had said, "And the entire Jewish people should weep for this burning
(the death of Nadav and Avihu)." The reason the Jewish people had an
obligation to grieve and mourn this enormous tragedy was because the death
Nadav and Avihu only came about because of the Jews' misperception of G-d
as a Judge (who looks away). If the Jews had not sinned with the Golden
Calf, this lesson would not have been needed.
The death of Aaron's sons is juxtaposed to the Yom Kippur service. The
Midrash explains that this juxtaposition teaches us that just as Yom Kippur
atones for sin only when one recognizes his failing (and attempts to
rectify the wrong), so too, the death of tzaddikim (righteous people) only
atones when one realizes that it was not in vain. The tzaddik is only taken
to cause the Jewish people to introspect and recognize what aspect of their
spirituality has to be corrected. However, if a tzaddik should pass away
and one remains unaffected, then the death of the tzaddik does not bring
about atonement. Yom Kippur and the passing of the tzaddik only
rehabilitate one's spirituality if it causes him to realize that correction
must be made.
3. Setbacks Could be the Basis for Understanding
The Torah tells us that after Aaron had brought his personal offering and
that of the Jewish people, he entered into the Tent of Meeting with
Moshe. Rashi cites Chazal who explain that after Aaron officiated and
brought all the offerings, the fire did not descend from heaven to consume
them. The fire was a representation of the Shechina (Divine Presence)
entering into the Mishkan. When Aaron saw that he had done all that he was
commanded to do and the Shechina did not enter, he was pained. Aaron said
to Moshe, "I understand the reason the Shechina has not entered is because
Hashem is angry with me (because if his involvement with the Golden
Calf)." Aaron said to Moshe, "Moshe my brother by putting me in this
position you have embarrassed me!" Moshe and Aaron immediately entered the
Tent to pray for Mercy so that the Shechina should descend.
Initially Moshe told Aaron that he was chosen to be the Kohen Gadol (High
Priest). Meaning that G-d selected him for that position. Seemingly, Aaron
understood that his appointment came about through Hashem's dictate -
unrelated to Moshe's choice. If this is the case, when the Shechina did
not descend after he officiated, why did Aaron say to Moshe, "You have
embarrassed me by placing me in this position"? The claim should not have
been directed against Moshe, but rather the question should have been, "why
did Hashem put me in an embarrassing position?"
The Torah tells us that Korach attempted to usurp Moshe's authority by
questioning the authenticity of the Divinity of the Torah. Korach's claim
against Moshe was that Aaron's appointment was Moshe's choice. Korach
accused him of nepotism. It is interesting to note that although Korach
experienced the Sinai event and openly witnessed G-d speaking to Moshe face
to face, he nevertheless questioned his credibility. The Torah tells us
that G-d spoke to Moshe after the Sinai event saying, "In you, they (the
Jewish people) will believe forever" - meaning that Moshe's word is
synonymous with that of Hashem. If G-d had said that Moshe's word is His
word then how could Korach have questioned his authority?
Korach believed that because of Moshe's special level of spirituality he
had a unique and intimate relationship with Hashem. Because of this, when
Moshe would make a request of Hashem, He would acquiesce and grant him his
wishes. Therefore, Korach felt that the choice of Aaron to be the High
Priest was not the choice of G-d, but rather the choice of Moshe. Hashem
acquiesced to that request and was agreeable that Aaron was to be the High
Priest. This was the basis for Korach's mutiny against Moshe. He had also
believed that many of the other laws of the Torah evolved in a similar manner.
Aaron's understanding and initial reaction was similar to that of
Korach. He believed that Hashem had only appointed him as Kohen Gadol due
to the request of Moshe. Since Moshe wanted him to be the High Priest, and
G-d merely acquiesced, then when the Shechina did not descend, he said,
"Moshe my brother by placing me in this position you have embarrassed me!"
Upon hearing this, Moshe took his brother Aaron into the Tent of Meeting
and they prayed for G-d's Mercy. It was only after they prayed that Hashem
responded. At this moment, Aaron understood that his predicament was not
due to Moshe initiating his appointment but rather, even if one is chosen
by Hashem, one needs to call upon the Attribute of Mercy to assist him in
The Jewish people witnessed this incident; it sowed the seeds of descent,
which allowed Korach to initiate his mutiny. One could have interpreted the
situation, as Aaron had initially understood it to be. Aaron's
misperception was corrected; however, Korach was not able to see it in this
manner because of his desire for acknowledgement and glory.
One could ask -if we are the Chosen People, then why do we experience such
difficulties and hardships? G-d forbid, these questions could undermine
our belief in who we really are. The Jewish people were chosen by G-d to
be His priestly, kingly nation. He identified us as His holy people. The
basis for all the travails and difficulties of the Jewish people are rooted
in our spiritual setbacks. We learn from Moshe and Aaron that with the
power of prayer one is able to call upon the Attribute of Mercy (Midas
Ha'Rachamim) to intervene and bring about bracha (blessing).
4. Understanding the Spirituality of the Jew
The Torah states regarding the kosher species that one is permitted to eat,
"Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Children of
Israel saying: zos ha'chaya - These are the creatures that you may eat from
among the animals that are upon the earth." The Torah usually uses the
term "chaya (creature)" to refer to the undomesticated animal. Why does
the Torah use the term "chaya" in the context of kosher species? Rashi
cites Chazal who explain that the word "chaya" is derived from the word
"chaim," which means eternal "life" in the spiritual sense. The Midrash
continues, "Since the Jewish people are attached to Hashem and have the
capacity to cleave to chaim (eternal spiritual life which is rooted in
Hashem), they must be separated from spiritual contamination in order to
maintain the proper level. Hashem commanded the Jewish people to observe
His mitzvos unlike other nations who do not have that capacity." It is
only through the observance of mitzvos that the Jew maintains his relevance
Sforno in his commentary writes that before the sin of the Golden Calf, the
Jewish people had a capacity of spirituality that they were able to have a
direct relationship with the Shechina (Divine Presence). They did not
require the setting of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) to have Hashem dwell in
their midst. However, after the failing of the Golden Calf the Jewish
people regressed spiritually from where they had been at Sinai. They no
longer had the capacity to directly accommodate G-d's Presence in their
midst. It was only because of the tefillah (prayer) of Moshe, that Hashem
was agreeable to allow the Mishkan to be the conduit and medium to
accommodate His Presence in their midst. In addition, Sforno continues to
explain that the Jew has specific dietary laws (kosher) that are meant to
maintain his spirituality and his connection to chaim (eternal
life/Hashem). The Jew must separate himself from anything that could
diminish his spirituality. This is not only limited to food items but to
anything which is classified as spiritually contaminating.
The Midrash states, "The Torah was only given to those who consumed the
Mann (Manna)." Chazal tells us that the Mann was the spiritual food that
was the equivalent of that which sustains the angels. Ramban explains that
the Mann was the radiance emanating from Hashem in physical form. It
sustained the Jewish people for a period of forty years and spiritualized
the Jew. The Mann enabled the Jew to process the Torah, which is the
ultimate spiritual sustenance of the Jewish people.
The dietary laws were communicated to the Jewish people in order to allow
them to function in a spiritual context. It is interesting to note that
the food, which sustains mankind, although it is mundane and earthy,
nevertheless can affect one's spirituality. How do we understand this? The
mission of the Jew is to spiritualize the mundane. This can be done
through consecration. Rambam, in the Laws of Deios states that a Jew has
the ability to consecrate all aspects of his physical existence. If one
lives his life within the parameters set forth by the Torah, then one's
entire existence becomes spiritualized. Rambam writes that if one eats,
sleeps, or cohabits, all for the sake of being physically fit to serve
Hashem in a more perfect manner, then it is considered the fulfillment of
the mitzvah of "knowing G-d in all your ways."
The Midrash tells us that if the Jewish people had entered the Promised
Land immediately (without wandering in the desert for forty years) they
would not have succeeded as a spiritual people because they would have been
preoccupied with tilling and cultivating the Land. They would not have had
sufficient time to be dedicated to Torah study. Hashem retained them in
the desert for a period of forty years with Moshe Rabbeinu as their teacher
and the Shechina on their minds. Their sustenance was the Mann and the
Clouds of Glory protected them. They were completely encircled and
engulfed in spirituality. The Jews were incubated in a spiritual context
for a forty-year period.
The Mishna in Tractate Berachos tells us that the chassidim rishonim -
original chassidim (scrupulously devout individuals) - would prepare for
one hour before tefillah, pray for one hour, and reflect for one hour upon
the prayer that they had just prayed. Given that there are three prayer
services a day, it means that the chassidim rishonim were minimally engaged
in prayer for a nine-hour period every day. The Gemara asks, "If this was
the case then when would they have time for Torah study and review? In
addition, there was not sufficient time to earn a living." The Gemara
answers that since they were at this special spiritual level, they would
retain the Torah they had studied without any difficulty and their living
would come through the labor of others. Because they were completely
focused on spirituality, all their spiritual and physical needs came to
them without difficulty.
If the Jewish people had not sinned with the Golden Calf, they would have
been minimally at the level of the chassidim rishonim. The reason the
Jewish people needed to have a Mishkan was that they became spiritually
diminished. The reason the Jewish people needed to remain an additional
forty years in the desert was the sin of the Spies. In each case, Hashem
provided a setting for the Jewish people to maintain and advance themselves
spiritually. Since a Jew possesses the spiritual capacity to be attached
to chaim (life/Hashem), he is required to live within the context of Torah
observance. It is only through this way of life, does the Jew have
relevance to spiritual eternity.
5. Torah - the Protector of Israel
The Torah states, "Vayhi ba'yom ha'shmini - It was on the eighth day, Moshe
summoned Aaron and his sons..." The Midrash Tanchuma states that whenever
the term "Vayhi ba' yom- It was on that day (those days)" is found
throughout scripture it is to indicate tragic events. The Midrash cites
the five incidents of "Vayhi ba' yom" and expounds upon them. One of the
examples cited is "Vayhi b'mai Achaz Melech Yehudah - These are the days of
Achaz King of Yehudah." The Midrash asks, "To what tragedy is the verse
The Midrash cites the verse which states, "Aram was in the east and the
Philistines were behind them." The verse indicates that the Jewish people
were surrounded by their enemies. If this was the case, then to what
tragedy are words "Vayhi b'mai" alluding? One would think that it is an
obvious tragedy that the Jewish people were surrounded by their enemies.
Thus, not requiring an allusion. The Midrash answers that the tragedy was
that Achaz the king of Yehudah denied a Torah education to the youth. He
shut down the Torah education system. He did this because he wished to
eliminate Torah from existence, thus removing G-d's interest from this
world. Achaz had said, "If there are no young sheep there will be no
mature sheep. If there are no flocks then there is no need for a shepherd
(Hashem). If there are no youngsters, being educated in Torah there will be
no teachers. If there are no qualified teachers, there will be no talmidim
(students). If there are no talmidim there will be no Torah scholars. If
there are no Torah scholars there will be no Torah. If there is no Torah
then there will be no synagogues and study halls. And if there are no
synagogues and study halls then Hashem is removed from this existence."
The Midrash cites a verse that indicates that Achaz shut down the Torah,
thus causing it to be unavailable to the Jewish people. When the people
understood what Achaz intended to bring about they began calling out, "Woe
to us the world will be destroyed because they have annulled the Torah!"
The painful and tragic event that the prophet is alluding to is not the
Land of Israel being surrounded by its enemies but rather to the ultimate
end of existence because of the lack of Torah study. If Jews are not
engaged in Torah study, then being surrounded by their enemies is a
Rabbeinu Bachya cites a Midrash in which one of the Roman emperors
approached Reb Yehoshua ben Chananiya (a Tanna - one of the leading Torah
Sages of the generation) and said, "We have been trying to eliminate the
Jewish people for many years without success. You Jews are a tough
flock." Reb Yehoshua responded, "It is not that the Jewish people are a
tough flock, but rather we have a tough shepherd (Hashem)." Despite our
enemies, if the Jewish people are properly engaged in Torah study, Hashem
will watch over us.
The Torah tells us that the installation of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim
needed to be in front of the elders of Israel. Rebbe Akiva says that the
Jewish people are compared to a bird. Just as the bird cannot fly without
wings, so too the Jewish people cannot function without its elders (Torah
The survival and success of the Jewish people is determined by its Torah
leaders and by the Jews themselves being engaged in Torah study. The
Talmud states, "Great is Torah study because the study brings to action."
May we all merit an appreciation for our heritage -the Torah itself and
partake of it in a more meaningful way.
6. How Does One Hone His Spirituality?
The Torah states regarding the consumption of non-kosher species, "Do not
make your souls abominable by means of any creeping thing; do not
contaminate yourselves through them lest you become contaminated
(v'nitmasim) through them." The conclusion of the verse seems to be
redundant. How do we understand this?
Chazal explain that the word "v'nitmasim" (contaminated)" is written with
the "aleph" deleted. Thus without the vowels it can be read as "v'nitamtem
(closed/sealed)." This means that when the Jew consumes non-kosher species
he becomes spiritually desensitized. He looses his natural sensitivity to
The Torah continues, "For I am Hashem your G-d - you are to sanctify
yourselves and you shall become holy, for I am holy..." If a Jew takes the
initiative to achieve holiness, he becomes holy because "Hashem is
holy." Holiness is defined by anything with which Hashem is
associated. For example, only when the Divine Presence descended upon Mt.
Sinai did it become holy. Then when the Shechina ascended from the
mountain, it returned to its ordinary status. The Jewish people, who were
qualified to be taken as G-d's people at Sinai, are referred to as "Goy
Kaddosh - Holy people." They are only holy because of their association
Partaking of non-kosher species causes the Jew to become spiritually
desensitized because the basis for this sensitivity is rooted in our
connection to Hashem. The natural senses of a human being only have
relevance to the physical and not the spiritual because they are physical
senses. However, the Jew has the ability to sense spirituality only
because of his association with Hashem. Thus, if the Jew lives his life
as prescribed by the Torah and does not contaminate himself, he becomes the
proper vessel in which holiness can exist.
Ramban writes at the beginning of the Portion of Kedoshim, "When the Torah
states the Positive Commandment of "Kedoshim t'heu - You shall be holy," it
means, "One should sanctify himself with what is permitted to him."
Although the Torah permits many physical engagements and endeavors,
limiting one's physical indulgence enables one to have a greater acuteness
for spirituality. The more one is immersed in physicality, he causes and
creates a "timtum - a blockage" for spirituality.
The Mishna Tractate Nidarim states that a non- Jew, even if he is
circumcised, is classified as "aareil." The foreskin that is removed
during the circumcision is referred to as "aarlah (a
covering)." Therefore, the person who is not circumcised is referred to as
"aareil" because the covering has not been removed. The non-Jew, although
he may be circumcised in the physical sense, nevertheless retains the
status of "aareil." This is because the verse refers to the non-Jew as
"aarlei lev - covered heart." Although he is circumcised, the non-Jew is
considered sealed and blocked to spirituality. He does not have that
special sensitivity because he does not have relevance to Kiddusha
(holiness). Only the Jew, who is part of the "Goy Kaddosh - holy people,"
is the setting for Kiddusha. In order for the Jew to retain his spiritual
sensitivity, he must maintain himself in a certain context, which allows
him to be a location for holiness.
It is not enough for a Jew to observe mitzvos and to study Torah in order
to have a greater capacity for holiness. A Jew needs to limit his
involvement in the material if it is only for the sake of satisfying the
physical. One cannot increase Kiddusha in one's life while simultaneously
behaving in a gluttonous manner. For a Jew to have a sense of Kiddusha -
he must aspire to Holiness.
Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Kalatsky is the founder of the Yad Avraham Institute, a New York-based learning center whose mission is to disseminate Torah to Jews of all backgrounds and walks of life.