Today, Yom HaShoah is a day in which we remember the 6,000,000 kedoshim; men, women, children who died al kiddush Hashem and whose loss continues to send tremors throughout our holy nation. Truth be told, we must remember the 6,000,000 every day. The Holocaust was a catastrophic event which changed the trajectory of our people. No matter how much we grow, succeed, and flourish, this loss will be felt until Moshiach comes and dries our tears. But mourning is never an ends – it must be used as a means. What do we do with this overwhelming tragedy? How do remember and yet find a way to grow? Amazingly, the answer is in this week’s Parsha.
The Torah describes the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. It was a complicated service with many distinct parts and could only be performed by the Kohen Gadol. One of the spiritual highpoints of this sacred service was the Kohen Gadol’s entry into the Kodesh HaKodashim (Holy of Holies) – only one man on one day of the year was permitted to enter. It was there in the Kodesh HaKodashim that the Kohen Gadol would offer the kitores (incense).
And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud. (Vayikra 16:2)
“Ki b’anan ey’raeh al ha’kappores, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud.” What is the “cloud” referenced in the verse? It is the smoke created by the kitores (incense). Hashem conveys to Moshe that Aharon may not enter the Kodesh HaKodashim unless he is performing the kitores service. However, the Lubliner Rav, Rav Meir Shapiro (1887-1933) explains this verse in a different light. The cloud represents times of difficulty, despair, and adversity. During these types of trying times, it is normal to despair and give up. There are turbulent chapters of life that are so overwhelming that a person feels they simply cannot move on. At times, the cloud of sadness and difficulty hangs over the kappores, the lid of life. But even in those moments, “ey’raeh, I will appear (be seen),” for I am always with you. We cannot avoid the challenges of life for they are part of the fabric of existence. We cannot run from tragedy of loss, but we can gain strength from the fact that even when the cloud of adversity hangs over us – Hashem is always with us. We are never alone, we are never forsaken, we are never forgotten.
When we look at the strength and success of our nation, less than a century since the Nazis, may their memory be erased, and their evil cohorts tried to systematically annihilate us – it is nothing short of miraculous. Immigrants who came to this country and Israel with nothing and built families, lives, a State, businesses, Yeshivos and schools – how can one explain this strength and resilience? The Lubliner Rav whispers to us, “my dear children, the answer you seek is in one word, ey’raeh, I will be seen.” There were times when we thought God had forsaken us, there are times when we may have felt alone and abandoned. But we were wrong. You were always there. You are always here. This is the lesson for our people.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, you shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.’” (Vayikra 19:1-3)
It seems like a simple directive, “Kedoshim Tihiyu, you shall be holy.” So simple, yet so profound and complex. What does it mean to be holy? How do we actualize this holiness?
The commentaries advance many different ideas and insights as to the meaning and actualization of the holiness concept. Rashi explains, “Separate yourself from immorality and sin.” Core holiness is defined by one’s ability to fight against the urges and desires which cast us in the abyss of immorality. God can tolerate our shortcomings and mistakes, but we must strive to be a moral nation. Without morality (specifically sexual morality), we are no different than animals. Holiness is the ability to resist temptation and remain on the proper path of life.
Ramban (Nachmanidies) explains that holiness means moderation. Learn to limit yourself even with those things which are permitted to you. Just because something is permitted does not mean it is good or appropriate. Everything we do in life, every decision we make has a lasting impact and creates a ripple effect. When assessing a particular course of action, it is not enough to ask, “is this forbidden or permitted?” Sometimes, even if the action is permitted, it can still create negative repercussions going forward. The true indication of holiness is the ability to exercise restraint even in those areas in which one can technically overindulge.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch brings these two ideas together.
“Kedusha (holiness) is the product of the completest mastery by the God-like free-willed human being over all his forces and natural tendencies, with the allurements and inclinations associated with them, and placing them at the disposal of God’s Will. This mastery over one’s self, the highest possible art which human beings can practice, does not consist of neglecting, curtailing, killing, or doing away with any of one’s powers or natural tendencies … Virtuosity in this, the highest human art, is only attained, as in other art, by practice, by constant exercise in using one’s moral free will in mastering existing tendencies … That is the work that everybody is called on to perform, each one according to his own individual peculiarities, the work that is done quietly, silently, known to no one but himself, on his own inner self …”
Holiness is self-mastery. Holiness is when you realize that you control how you act. Holiness is when you understand that you have control over the life you lead and the person you are. Holiness is the state of being, achieved when you realize that “the buck stops with you.” When a person exhibits “Rashi-like” strength and abstains from immoral and negative behaviors, and when a person exhibits “Ramban-like” strength and at times chooses to abstain from certain behaviors, not because they are prohibited but because they are not conducive to his ongoing growth – this person has become holy. We can control ourselves. Once we acknowledge that we each possess self-control, we become the master of our decisions and destinies. This is kedusha; this is true holiness.
We often think of holiness as the state of being which one reaches because of dynamic, positive, spiritual activity. While this is certainly true, there is an important first step: self-mastery. Holiness is achieved only when one becomes the master of his self. Too often, we are enslaved by our desires, passions, and proclivities. We feel we lack control over the direction and quality of our lives. We say to ourselves and others, “This is who I am!” The truth is, there is no such statement as “this is who I am” only, “this is who I choose to be.” We often cannot choose the influences which try to propel us in different directions, but we can make the final decision if we will act on them. The path to holiness is often long and challenging, but it all begins with a recognition that we each possess the control and mastery of who we become.
“You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning.” (Vayikra 19:13)
The Parsha begins with the obligation of “Kedoshim tihiyu (You shall be holy)”. Holiness is not found solely in our relationship with God, it is also an integral part of our relationship with one another. Whereas, in our relationship with God holiness is manifest in the fulfillment of the mitzvos, in our relationship with our fellow, holiness can be found in treating the other with dignity, honor and respect. As such, the Torah lays down basic requirements. If someone does work for you – pay them in a timely fashion. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a compromised life situation. Don’t take the possessions of another.
The Torah discusses two forms of theft, gineyva and gezel. Gineyva is theft performed secretly, surreptitiously and without the knowledge of others. Gizeyla is brazen theft; the thief stealing the item often with the knowledge of the owner in a public display of blatant disregard. In the aforementioned verse, the Torah highlights the prohibition of gezel. Jewish law explains that even the gazlan (thief) can do teshuva (repent) by returning the stolen object. There is repentance even for the most brazen acts of theft. Yet the Talmud (Bava Kama 94b) explains that if the stolen object is no longer in existence and the thief comes to return the value of the object, the victim must refuse repayment. The Gemara calls this, Takanas HaShavim (an enactment for the benefit of, or to facilitate the performance of teshuva). In other words, the Rabbis understood that if a person wanted to repent from his sinful way but realized that doing so would cost him a good deal of money and result in financial loss – he would simply abstain from changing. Society has a vested interest in the reformation of the criminal and the Rabbis asked the victim to take a personal loss to enable the thief to change his crooked ways and become a productive cog in the societal wheel.
There are two incredible lessons which emerge from this halacha.
We must invest in each other. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that when it comes to spirituality, we often assume, “You take care of your neshoma (soul) and I’ll take care of mine.” It is certainly true that we must each exercise personal responsibility over our lives. Only we can determine who we are and who we will become. Only we can decide the nature of the lives we will lead and the quality of the identities we will create. Yet, we must find ways to facilitate growth in our fellow Jew. When the thief shows up at the doorstep of the victim and offers repayment, the victim has the incredible opportunity to do something to help enable change in the thief. By declining the offer of repayment, he is allowing the thief to avoid choosing between spiritual growth the financial loss. The victim invests in the growth of the thief and the world is better for it.
We all want to be good. The Rabbis understood that even the thief wants to come back to God. Even the sinner desires holiness. So, what stops the sinner from returning “home?” It’s hard. It’s challenging to change your lifestyle. It’s difficult to give up behaviors which have been part of your daily rhythm. And its really difficult when change is going to cost money. Even when a person wants to do and be good – if the cost of change is too steep, most people will simply slip back into their established patterns of behavior. The Rabbis stepped in and removed obstacles to change in order to benefit the sinner and greater society. We all want to be good – it’s just that sometimes the obstacles look too difficult overcome.
From this simple phrase, “You shall not rob”, we learn about our inner goodness and the need to bring it out in the other. May we find the strength to believe in each other and in ourselves.
Drasha is sponsored by Marlene Resnick & Family in memory of her husband and son, Baruch Shimon ben Yehuda Leib and Michel ben Baruch Shimon and Barry & Judy Silber in commemoration of the 17th yahrzeit (4 Iyar) of Molly Silber, Malka bas Akiva z’l.
There are many prohibitions in the Torah. Refraining from violating these prohibitions and maintaining our allegiance to God can be challenging at times. Yet, there are other prohibitions that seem a bit less complicated and tempting.
“For regarding the soul of all flesh its blood is in its soul, and I said to the children of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the soul of any flesh is its blood all who eat it shall be cut off.”
I don’t of anyone who struggles with blood consumption. Yet the Torah hands down such a stiff penalty. Jewish law tells us that if an animal is slaughtered for sacrificial purposes the blood must be applied to the altar and if the animal is slaughtered for regular consumption the Torah commands us, “…. you shall spill it on the ground like water.” (Devorim 12:16) The Torah repeats the prohibition of consuming blood multiple times,each time with a reminder of punishment. Why such severity regarding the consumption of blood? What is the deeper message?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe provides an incredible insight. Blood symbolizes passionate and vibrant life. Blood courses through our veins and allows us to engage in dynamic activity. Blood represents vitality. This life vitality is actualized through the skills, abilities and strengths given to us by God. If one were to ingest blood, it would represent taking of this vitality and only using it for personal advancement. If we consume blood, we are making the statement that our individual strengths and abilities are only for ourselves. But God wants us to think bigger and become better. For sacrificial animals that blood is applied to the altar, symbolizing the need to use our abilities for some higher purposes. We cannot simply use our talents solely for our own personal self-advancement, we must use them in a holy, spiritual and uplifted fashion. We must utilize our strengths to forge deeper connections with God and discover our own personal holiness. We must find a holy application for all our skills and abilities. For non-sacrificial, mundane animals, the Torah commands us to spill the blood on the ground like water. Why does the Torah use this verbiage? Why not just tell us that we can’t eat it? What does it matter if we spill out on the ground or dispose of it in some other way? Water is used to nurture growth. When you plant seeds, the fertile soil is not enough, you must water them to enable their growth. The Torah is conveying to us an incredible lesson. Take the blood, which represents the totality of your abilities, strengths and dynamic potential and pour it on the ground like water; use it to facilitate growth in the world around you. Use your kochos to cause the ground around you to bring forth beautiful life. Use your blood to enable growth in others, use your blood to make the world around you more vibrant and holy. Don’t ingest the blood, don’t keep your abilities for yourself, pour it on the earth around and use it to enable growth all around you. Find a way to use your abilities to make the world and the people around you better.
What begins as a simple prohibition, teaches us a dramatic life lesson. Put your abilities on the altar of God and find a way to use your strengths to discover and amplify your personal holiness. Pour your heart, soul and arsenal of talent and strength into the earth around you and facilitate growth in your friends, family and humanity.