To Be Holy, or Not to Be Holy -- That is the Question!By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
G-d spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them,
"Be Holy (kedoshim teheyu)! because I, Hashem your G-d, am holy." (Vayikra
It is great timing that this parshah should follow on the heels of Pesach,
and during the sefirah, a time of national mourning, a time of national
introspection. For, in the above posuk and the parshah that follows is the
most precise summation of the reason why G-d reached into Egypt and yanked
the broken Jewish nation into freedom. It is THE mission statement of the
Jewish people: Be Holy!
The Jewish people have many missions here on earth, but all of them emanate
from the prime raison d'etre of being a holy people, as the Torah earlier
" You will be a kingdom of priests to Me a holy nation; these are the
things which you shall tell the Children of Israel." (Shemos 19:6)
To be part of the Jewish nation, the Torah is telling us, is to strive to
be holy. This is not something reserved only for the kohanim of our nation,
for, G-d has called us a "kingdom of priests." To alter this meaning of the
Jewish people and to pursue a different approach to being Jewish is to so
dramatically alter the definition of Judaism that it can no longer be
called "Judaism" -- even though externally, it looks "Jewish."
It is not coincidental that the mitzvah to be holy is based upon the fact
that G-d Himself is holy. The Torah is telling us, "You want to know if you
are holy? If you are DRIVEN to feel G-d's Presence, and you DO feel His
Presence, then you are holy. If you have little drive to feel G-d's
Presence, and therefore probably don't, then holiness has eluded you."
Perhaps one of the greatest "litmus tests" of this concept is prayer.
Prayer is called by the Talmud, "that which is on High." The Nefesh HaChaim
writes that the purpose of prayer is to increase G-d's Presence in
creation, to draw down His holy light into the world. This is why the word
"brochah" (blessing) is a derivation of the Hebrew word "breichah," which
means "spring" (as in a wellspring of light Above; Rashba, Teshuvos 5:51).
A "holy nation," therefore, is also one that cherishes the opportunity to
pray to G-d, to connect up with Him, and to feel His Presence.
Yet, in so many synagogues around the world, prayer has become, at best,
ritualistic, no more complicated or challenging than walking into a good
Jewish butcher shop and buying kosher meat. You have to come to pray
because, TECHNICALLY-speaking, it is an obligation. You have to say certain
prayers because, TECHNICALLY, that is the way you fulfill the mitzvah. You
have to have intention for the mitzvah, and to think about the meaning of
what you are saying, because, TECHNICALLY, that is what prayer is all about.
Does it make a difference whether or not I can do that in five minutes or
fifteen minutes? ("Besides," one person told me, "the faster I finish
praying, the faster I can get back to my Torah-learning ") Does it make a
difference whether or not my heart is in praying to the Master of the
Universe -- the Holy One, Blessed is He, the A-lmighty the One Who grants
life and takes it the One from Whom all my blessing flows the One Whom
Moshe Rabbeinu found interesting enough to take time from HIS Torah
learning to pray to -- or not, whether I find prayer boring or unbelievably
We could on about this disturbing dichotomy in the Jewish nation, but it
has also begun to manifest itself in an even more frightening manner.
That Western fads and fashions have affected the Orthodox community is,
unfortunately, nothing new. However, that fashion should be a reason to
ignore Torah guidelines of modesty, be they limits on how much of a
person's limbs can be "exposed" in public, or, how attention-getting one's
outer appearance has been made to be, is a more recent phenomenon in many
communities. Even in some more halachic-adhering communities, INCLUDING in
Eretz Yisroel, fashion, in some cases, "hovers" at the limits of
Torah-taste, emphasizing the person's restraint only out of fear of
sinning, or, earning disrespect and ire in the eyes of others.
In the former case, it is a serious problem, and it endangers the Jewish
people, as we saw at the end of last week's parshah. In the latter case, it
is a better situation, but not a great one, and, G-d forbid, within one
generation can lead to the former crisis.
Why? Because of "Kedoshim Teheyu."
Holy people are not dragged in the direction of decreasing modesty, either
in appearance or attitude. As Rashi and the Ramban point out at the
beginning of this week's parshah, holiness is very much a function of
modest behavior; increased modesty results in increased holiness, which, in
turn, results in increased union with G-d (I try to explain to my own
children, not with a whole lot of success, especially when adults they look
up to don't seem to fathom this concept, including her own father,
It's that simple. Well, at least, it's THAT simple when there is no yetzer
hara to pull us in the direction of less holiness. And, if that is so,
then, a holy nation is, above all, one that takes on its yetzer hara head
on in order to clear a path to G-d.
You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: you must not show favoritism
to the poor, nor honor to the important person; in righteousness you must
judge your people. (Vayikra 19:15)
To be human is to be biased, even when pursuing objectivity. How can it be
any other way? We are products of childhoods we don't even recall, for
better or for worst. We have been guided and nurtured by Society's mandate
and its leaders in ways too insidious to detect, until we confront contrary
points of view, which a person will often reject out-of-hand. Our own
personal needs and handicaps will "force" us to emphasize certain
priorities more than others, just as a matter of survival.
And, so the question returns, how can one judge anyone or anything
Let me answer this by way of example. There is a story in the Talmud of a
great man who was overcome with desire when tempted by a woman whose desire
it was to make this man fall. Unable to control himself, he pursued her
without constraint, and after she climbed to the attic he followed up the
ladder in hot pursuit.
Realizing that all was lost, while on the ladder, he yelled out at the top
of his lungs, "Fire! Fire!" at which point his colleagues came running in
to see what was the matter. Seeing him on the ladder, and to whom he was
climbing, they quickly realized the man's predicament, and why he called
out as he had. They were embarrassed for him and themselves, and commented
how hard it must be for him to be seen in such a state. However, he
"Better you should see me like this than in Gehinnom for having committed
The point of the analogy is that sometimes we don't possess the keys to get
the job done on our own.
"Hey! I thought the rule was that G-d never gives a person a test they
Correct. However, sometimes the test is not always what we think it is. As
in the case of the man in the story whose "fire" of passion drove him in
the direction of grave sin, it was a test to recognize that he had the
potential to err, and therefore, to seek outside help in preventing a
What saved the man in the story was not his ability to withstand
temptation; what saved him against the fire of passion (he wasn't kidding
when he yelled, "Fire!") and personal gratification was his innate desire
to do the right thing. It was that internal recognition of the futility of
temporal pleasure against the loss of eternal bliss that made him call down
while he was climbing up.
By extension, then, this mitzvah to judge judiciously is really a mitzvah
to WANT to be unaffected by the normal influences of human nature and the
world around us. It is a mitzvah to rise to the recognition that OBJECTIVE
TRUTH is the highest level of reality, even if subjectively we stand to
lose an aspect of physical well-being and comfort.
Getting to this point of awareness allows us to become real with our
intellectual and emotional shortcomings. And THAT points us in the
direction of the only One Who can help us make up for those shortcomings,
the Knower of Objective Truth, G-d Himself!
Hence, the Talmud states:
From where do we know that three who sit in judgment the Divine Presence
joins with them? It says, "In the midst He judges" (Tehillim 82:1).
But, says the Talmud elsewhere, that is ONLY in the case of three who sit
to judge according to the Objective Truth; of people who recognize their
shortcomings and turn to G-d for Divine assistance in making the right
decisions, in spite of their backgrounds and biases. And then, even in
spite of the Heavenly assistance they do enjoy, it is accounted to them as
if they chose correctly, on their own.
This is what the Chasam Sofer referred to as Heavenly Help when making
decisions on behalf of the community, when the "judge" is G-d-fearing and
in search of G-d's truth.
For the Conductor; of the servant of G-d, of David, Who spoke the words of
this song to G-d on the day that G-d saved him from the hand of his enemies
and from the hand of Shaul. (Tehillim 18:1)
This very long psalm was the Psalm of the Day for the Seventh Day of Pesach
(according to the Vilna Gaon), and with an opening statement like the one
above, it is not hard to figure out why. Like Moshe Rabbeinu before him,
Dovid HaMelech often represents the entire Jewish people, and his plights
are often seen as paradigms of the entire Jewish struggle, and his personal
redemptions as preludes to national redemptions.
(According to the Tehillah l'Dovid, this is why Dovid made this tehillah
the eighteenth one, corresponding to the eighteen wars he had to wage in
This is one of the reasons why HIS Tehillim is OUR Tehillim, allowing us to
say HIS words as if they are OUR words. Hence, it is fitting that his
praise of G-d for his own personal redemption from his enemies be used as
our praise for our redemption from our national enemies, which, in the case
of the Seventh Day of Pesach, was the Egyptians.
That is the first reason. The second reason why this psalm is so
appropriate as the Psalm of the Day for the Seventh Day of Pesach is the
And he said: I will love You, G-d, my strength ... (18:2)
On Shabbos Chol HaMoed, we read Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) because
Pesach is a time of feeling and expressing national love for G-d. This is
so, firstly, out of gratitude for His redeeming us from Egypt, and
secondly, for having given us a "ticket" (Torah and mitzvos) to fulfillment
in This World and eternal bliss in the World-to-Come.
Says the Radak:
"Love means when a person takes advantage of every opportunity in this
material world to come close to G-d. Fear of G-d, however, must come before
love, for, only after a person is used to fearing G-d can he become
elevated to the point where he can serve G-d without concern for reward."
This is precisely the lesson we learned above from "Kedoshim Teheyu," that
one must strive to turn every materialistic situation into a spiritual one,
in order to create a spiritual environment within which the Divine Presence
is "comfortable." This means overcoming one's yetzer hara, which is driven
for materialistic pleasures as an end unto themselves.
This is why David loves G-d as "his strength," for, as the Talmud says:
Everyday, a person's yetzer hara seeks to overcome him and slay him. If not
for help from The Holy One, Blessed is He, no man could survive ...
Hence, this is another theme that was expressed above, namely, that one has
to realize his limitations in the battles of life, and accept the need to
invoke Divine assistance. This, perhaps, was one of Dovid HaMelech's
greatest strengths, which made him fitting to be the father of Moshiach.
As a final note (for now), the Talmud says that Dovid composed this psalm
upon the death of Shaul HaMelech (Moed Katan 16b), who, as Rashi explains,
was equal to all of Dovid's other enemies combined. After all, how does one
defend himself against a righteous king of Israel, except by fleeing, and
fleeing, and fleeing?
However, says the Talmud, he was strongly criticized for this by none other
than G-d Himself, who said that even "ten Davids would not equal one
Shaul." Realizing his error, and in humility typical of Dovid HaMelech, he
then wrote Psalm 7: an error to Dovid, to atone for his lack of respect for
the great and righteous Shaul HaMelech.
... Therefore, I will thank You among the peoples, G-d, and to Your Name I
will sing. He increases the victories of His king, and does kindness to His
anointed, to David and his seed forever! (18:50-51)
Amen! May that be true in our generation as well!
Have a great Shabbos,