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.
“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 doesn’t 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. He writes:
“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, 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 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 can’t choose the influences which try to propel us in different directions, but we 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.
Rabbi Silber explores Tehillim Chapter 58 and the Weekly Parshiyos of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim.