God told Moshe, "Speak to the entire congregation of the Children of
Israel and tell them, 'Be holy, for I, your God, am holy.'" (Vayikra 19:1-2)
We have begun the Omer Count. We began, as we do each year, on the second
night of Pesach and we will continue, God willing, for 49 days altogether
after which we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuos and the giving of Torah.
The mitzvah is to verbally count each of the 49 days between the holidays of
Pesach and Shavuos, beginning on the second day of Pesach when, in Temple
times, the Omer sacrifice containing an omer of barley was offered in the
Temple. This permitted the harvesting of the new crop of wheat that had
grown in the previous year until then.
Without a Temple we can no longer bring the Omer-Offering but we count the
49 days nevertheless, for a couple of reasons. For one it is a “count-up” to
Shavuos and the giving of Torah (as opposed to counting down which indicates
a desire to end something), showing our enthusiasm to receive Torah, and to
help us maintain that enthusiasm throughout the 49 days.
Another reason is because by counting the omer we spiritually prepare
ourselves to receive Torah, something that requires a lot of preparation. As
to exactly what that preparation is we need look no further than the second
verse of this week’s parshah:
Speak to the entire congregation of the Children of Israel and tell
them, “Be holy, for I, your God, am holy.” (Vayikra 19:2)
The reaction to this will vary. Some people will say, “Obviously.” Others
will cringe and say, “Not for me.” Others may simply be intrigued and say,
“What does it mean to be holy?” After all, bloody crusades were called
“holy,” as is Jihad. Obviously this obvious concept is not so obvious.
On a metaphysical level, as the Maharal explains, the Hebrew word for
holy—kodesh—tells you that to be holy is to be separate. For example, a
large part of the holiness of Shabbos is that it was “separated” from the
six profane working weekdays. When someone separates himself from something,
he becomes holy.
But from what? What is the “something” from which a person in search of
holiness must separate himself?
The answer comes from a well-known Ramban, but not one that many people
quote when it comes to understand the concept of holiness. The Ramban’s
answer is in response to a question he has on this week’s parshah, which is
basically: Until this point in Sefer Vayikra we have been learning about
that which makes a person holy: avoiding impure foods, abstaining from
forbidden relationships, etc. Why introduce the mitzvah to be holy here, and
not at the beginning of the book, or at the end of it?
His answer is a little surprising. The Ramban explains that everything the
Torah taught until now was just to reach the point that we could start
talking about being holy. Avoiding that which is forbidden has been the
preparation for discussing what it means to be holy, and this is why it is
only now that the topic is being addressed.
But what is left after having discussed all the forbidden foods and
relationships? From what else can one separate himself to become holy? The
Ramban explains: from that which is permissible. Being holy, says the
Ramban, is a matter of not being a menuval b’reshus HaTorah, a “disgusting
person with the permission of the Torah.”
Well, actually, it is not with the permission of the Torah since the Torah
never permits disgusting behavior. What the Ramban means is that one might
think that he can eat like a glutton as long as the food is “Glatt Kosher,”
and that he can drink as if there is no tomorrow as long as he imbibes
kosher spirits. Says Parashas Kedoshim: not if you are a pursuer of holiness.
In other words, explains the Ramban, kedushah—holiness—is not merely about
how you deal with that which is forbidden to you. Any decent human being
with a sense of self-dignity should be able to practice some self-control
and avoid “bad stuff” no matter how much he feels like partaking of it.
Rather, says the Ramban, kedushah is about how you behave with that which is
permissible to you. It is about how you interact with the world that God has
given you to enjoy, and what you do with it, and why. Even after commanding
so many mitzvos regarding what is forbidden, the Torah still leaves plenty
of room for a person to be a menuval with what is permissible, even if he is
careful to avoid that which is not.
What the Ramban may not have known in his time is how it would become
possible in our generation for a person to blend both worlds together. The
technology of his time may not have revealed what it does in our time, how
easy it is for one to step over the line that separates that which is
permissible from that which is forbidden. This is another great reason why
it is important to curb one’s use of even that which is permissible.
Part of the problem is that technology today allows people to fill emotional
gaps they may have always had but were unable to fulfill in a way that would
not call upon them suspicion and humiliation. Many people do not even know
what those gaps are and therefore do not realize that they are being
exploited by themselves and others, thanks to things like mobile internet,
instant messaging, etc.
By the time they do come to the realization what has been going on they may
have already stepped over the line of right-and-wrong. It may have started
off innocently, and with something that may have been “permissible” even by
Torah standards. But technologies today have the ability to “furrow” a path
between the permissible and the forbidden quite stealthily. It is not always
so clear to the people who walk that path when they pass from one side to
Now more than ever, a person has to be careful how he enjoys the
permissible, especially if kedushah, holiness, is his goal.
“Not my goal,” says one group. “Why should it be my goal?” says another. “It
should be every Jew’s goal,” says the third.
First of all, there is the command from God to be holy at the start of this
week’s parshah, and once upon a time, that would have been reason enough.
However, in today’s generation many people remain unmotivated to do the
right thing unless they can sense some kind of personal benefit from what
they are going to do. In other words, for many today, being holy, truly
holy, has to have some kind of personal payback as well.
It does, and this is what the Omer-Count is trying to teach us.
The starting point is in knowing that everyone wants to be happy. It’s a
universal value among all mankind, the only difference being the philosophy
of happiness from people to people. For some nations happiness is about
being a good person and achieving personal fulfillment. For others, it’s
about blowing up innocent people in the name of a cause that has no basis in
truth for anyone else but themselves.
The Americans have their idea of happiness, just as the Canadians have their
own, both of which may be very similar to that of the British. The French
have their own version, as do the Moslems and Chinese. But at the end of the
day, everyone wants to be happy because it is the way we have been hardwired.
Who is right? Is there even a “right,” or is happiness meant to be
subjective and therefore destined to pit nation against nation? And, if
there is one path to happiness, how does one know if he is in fact walking it?
The mishnah address this issue:
Rebi [Yehudah HaNassi] used to say: Which is the right path for man to
choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and
harmonious for mankind. (Pirkei Avos 2:1)
The Omer-Count was the build up to Kabbalos HaTorah, which came 50 days
after leaving Egypt. Just before receiving Torah, we are told, the Jewish
people achieved a phenomenal level of national harmony:
They traveled from Refidim and came to the Sinai Desert, and they
camped in the desert; they (written: he) camped opposite the mountain.
He camped opposite the mountain: k’ish echad, b’leiv echad—like a single
person with a single heart. (Rashi)
Not coincidentally, as the Jewish nation built towards unity they also built
towards being holy, because it was the latter that led to the former. In
fact, an automatic result of true holiness should be harmony, which is why
it was Aharon HaKohen, the Kohen Gadol, who became the symbol of that very
Hillel said: Be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing
peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah. (Pirkei Avos 1:12)
Because, and this is the main point: true holiness results in true
selflessness, which results in true harmony, internally and externally. If
what you are doing results in the opposite, no matter how many times you
write or yell out “holy” with respect to what you are doing, it is not. And
without true holiness there can be no true harmony, and therefore no true
happiness, for the person himself and the world in which he lives.
Certainly this means staying away from what is forbidden by the Torah. But,
it also means using that which is permissible in holy ways. The Omer-Count
is meant to drive this point home, to help us to prepare for the receiving
of Torah, and in truth, to help us prepare for life in general.