This week, we read the parshiyos of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim. Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim, which states that Parshas Kedoshim was delivered by Moshe Rabbeinu personally to the entirety of Klal Yisroel because most of the body of Torah is included there. The parsha begins with the command that we be holy, “Kedoshim tihiyu.” And it ends with a similar directive, “Vehiyisem li kedoshim.”
Many commentators wonder how the entirety of Am Yisroel could be commanded to be kedoshim, when it is one of the highest levels a person can attain. Is it fair to demand of simple folk that they rise to the highest rung on the ladder of devotion?
It appears that the word kedusha is commonly misunderstood. We loosely translate the word to mean holy, as connected to severe asceticism and austerity. Kedusha certainly means that, but it means much more than that.
A life of kedusha means to live with Hashem and to be enveloped by an awareness of His reality and presence. To be a kadosh means to live with a vision and a dream. It means seeing far, but living within the present. It means never losing sight of the ultimate goal.
A person who lives with kedusha is able to rise above our one-dimensional world and see a bigger and deeper universe. He is thus able to accomplish so much more than others. Other people don’t have time to spend with a boy who wants to learn, lovingly reviewing the Gemara with him repeatedly until he understands it and then moving along with him and helping him develop into a great talmid chochom, but a kadosh does, because his focus is on the larger goal of spreading Torah.
A kadosh doesn’t tire after sitting with people and helping them through their problems. He doesn’t complain when he speaks to a young person for several hours, providing a comforting shoulder and calm direction, because he is focused on the goal of having another healthy person in Hashem’s army.
A kadosh has time and infinite patience for davening, learning and bentching, because he knows that he is studying Hashem’s words and he knows that he is connecting with the Creator.
A kadosh sees himself as part of a greater group, connected with all, and seeking to bring the world and all he is connected with to a better place.
Rabbi Isaac Schmidman was a Slabodka talmid who came to America on behalf of the glorious yeshiva. While here raising money for the bastion of Torah, he noticed the situation of chinuch in this country. It was almost non-existent. But because he was focused on the larger goal, he also noticed the potential for change.
He stayed in New York and opened Yeshiva Toras Chaim, an elementary school, in Brownsville, then a major Jewish metropolis.
The novi Yirmiyohu (2:2) praises the willingness of Klal Yisroel to follow Hakadosh Boruch Hu into the desert. He proclaims, “Lechteich acharai bamidbar be’eretz lo zirua.” Hashem says, “I remember the chesed of your youth as you followed Me into the desert, to a land that is not planted.”
Rabbi Schmidman would explain this in an alternative fashion, noting that there are times when a person encounters a land where “lo zirua,” the “no” is firmly planted. It is a place where negativity and pessimism are all the rage. He would say that there is a special reward for people who don’t succumb to the negative mindset, but forge ahead.
The good rabbi was describing the America he encountered many decades ago. Religious immigrant parents, even those with beards and peyos, had given up on having children who would follow in their footsteps. It was widely accepted that Torah Judaism was but a European memory that would never take root in this country. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy and millions of Jews were lost forever.
Rabbi Schmidman went against the rage, opened a yeshiva and convinced parents to enroll their children in a religious school. Because he didn’t give in to the negative atmosphere, he was able to educate hundreds of children to follow in the path of their parents and grandparents.
Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky, a rebbi in that school, appreciated the lesson and went off on his own to a different land of “lo zirua,” establishing a similar school in the Five Towns of Long Island. The area was home to many Jews, but there were not even ten shomrei Shabbos with whom to form a minyan. He would often tell me of his reception in Woodmere, where a Jew like him was unwanted.
With emunah, bitachon, Torah and wisdom, he plowed ahead. With his goal firmly implanted, nothing could deter him. He wasn’t in it for himself. He didn’t do it for glory. There was no one around, but he wasn’t lonely. There was no support, but he wasn’t poor. He was bringing Torah to a place that had never welcomed it before. He was bringing it to a midbar, and he knew that it was only a matter of time before it would sprout and give fruit. The name of the school, Toras Chaim, meaning the Living Torah, defined him, as the Torah gave him life. His goal to spread that life and spirit empowered him and made a desert bloom.
Rabbi Kamenetzky passed away this past Erev Shabbos. When you think of what the Five Towns is today, think of him and his wife, two pioneers, young in age and spirit but old in their approach and worldview, who won over family after family, student after student, one soul and then another and another.
It can be done. We can do it. Kedoshim tihiyu. Stay focused on Hashem, not yourself. Stay focused on making the world a better place, on spreading Torah and kedusha, and you shall succeed.
I remember how Rabbi Kamenetzky helped me when I was starting out. He extended himself for me, introduced me to people, and did whatever he could to encourage me along the path of helping causes of Torah. He never asked for anything in return. There was nothing in it for him, besides helping add another young man to the cadre of people who could help realize the goal of “umolah ha’aretz dei’a es Hashem.” Every time I met him, he would smile at his “investment,” and I would let him know that I had not forgotten those early days when he would spend time with me.
Last week also saw the passing of Mrs. Devorah Sherer, wife of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who assumed the leadership of Agudas Yisroel of America at a rough time. The organization had a rich history, but, it appeared, not much of a future. He tried to get it going, but it seemed like the task was too daunting and he almost gave up. The gedolim of the time urged him to keep at it, to see beyond the cynicism and doubt. Believe in the goal, they told him, and you will succeed and the Agudah will come alive here.
With his graciousness and inspired leadership, he would, but that’s only half the story. The other half was virtually unseen, the essence of a bas melech penima.
Mrs. Sherer gave the ultimate gift to her people. Her husband would be surrounded by people and she was hanging slightly back, content to let him be the center of attention. She looked on with a half-smile, her donation to the cause.
These were people, the Kamenetzkys, the Sherers, and others like them, whose kedusha – a Divine ability to see bigger, to ignore what appears to be reality, and to touch a distant dream – gave us the vibrant frum life we now take for granted. They kept their eyes on the goal, enabling them to withstand the many obstacles and thus rise above the challenges.
Someone who cares about Hashem and His people is a kadosh, because the decisions he makes aren’t guided by personal negius or petty calculations, but by the one essential truth. That is kedusha.
A kadosh is made of chomer and tzurah, just like everyone else, but his tzurah – spirituality – rules over his chomer – physicality. His chomer and chumrius is subservient to his nefesh and neshoma. His life is spiritual and consumed with big and important things. He is not a slave to pettiness and silliness, therefore, he is a kadosh. Small things don’t get in his way. He remains focused on the goals set for him in Parshas Kedoshim.
That is why this parsha of Kedoshim Tihiyu was said by Moshe himself behakheil, to everyone. Every person can be a kadosh. Every person can study Parshas Kedoshim and follow its dictates. “Rov gufei Torah teluyim bah,” most of the Torah is here, because if you live a life of tzurah, with your nefesh and neshoma in the driver’s seat, you won’t be held down by chumrius, the insignificant things that prevent you from becoming a kadosh.
Rav Shmuel Rozovsky would tell about a group of bochurim he knew in Grodno who worried that since the whole of creation is dependent upon Torah being learned, it stands to reason that the world is endangered when Torah learning decreases. These boys felt a responsibility to help save the world during those times and formed a group to learn on Friday afternoons.
While many others were busy preparing for Shabbos, they learned, stopping close to Shabbos and hurriedly getting ready to greet Shabbos.
Rav Shmuel concluded his account saying, “And even if they didn’t take as long to make hachanos for Shabbos as some of the others… oif zei hubben mir geshmekt kedushas Shabbos, you could sense the holiness of Shabbos upon them.”
This is the kedusha he sensed, the focus, the diligence and the vision that allowed them to see beyond their little town, viewing a wider world and their role within it.
Kedusha is attained by taking the steps to grow and seeing far. Those young yeshiva bochurim saw so far and deep that they merited the stamp of kadosh. They sought to change the world by changing themselves in a most literal way.
Kedoshim Tihiyu. Seize opportunities to accomplish goodness and become a better person. If you live that way, you will always be beholden to the gufei Torah. Before you engage in any type of action you will always stop to consider whether what you are about to do brings you closer to Hashem, or further from Him.
Kedoshim Tihiyu. The Torah wants us to live our lives focused on achieving that goal. Nothing we encounter is insignificant, for each step we take either brings us closer to our goal or further from it. To reach the goal of being a kadosh, our steps must all be suffused with kedusha.
Every interaction with another person is an opportunity to show whether you are a kadosh. If you present yourself properly, carry yourself with dignity, dress in clean proper clothing, and speak like a mentch, then you are mekadeish sheim Hashem and demonstrate that you are not caught up in the vagaries of the moment.
If you have time for other people, if you hold the door for an older person, then you show that you are on a higher plane. If you exhibit common courtesy when you drive, if you stop to let someone park, pull out of a parking space or cross, or you give a different car the right of way, you show virtues of kadosh. You demonstrate that you believe Hashem is with you and watching you, and you behave the way Parshas Kedoshim indicates you should.
If you’re dealing with your chavrusah, or a delivery boy, or a salesman in a store, talk to him the way the Mesilas Yeshorim tells you to, because you know that kedusha is the highest level you can attain, and you know that you get there by being a person of tzurah, of Torah, and that means acting in a way that brings you closer to Hashem.
Every day of Sefirah, we take a step forward towards Torah and tzurah and a step back from chomer and chumrius. We do that by following the parsha of Kedoshim Tihiyu, following its mitzvos and remembering what our goal is.
Money is very important. We need it to pay bills and to live. But there is more to life than making money. It is a tool, not a goal. We live to set goals, reach them, and seek success in things that are really important. Help a person and you’ve created a world. Smile at someone and you’re one step closer to your goal. Rid your heart of hatred, don’t be involved in machlokes, pursue peace and constructive enterprises, and your life will be enriched.
Kedoshim Tihiyu and v’ohavta lereiacha kamocha are both in the same parsha. They are interdependent. If you are a kadosh, then you love every Jew, you appreciate each person for what they are, and you embrace them even if they aren’t on your level, because they are children of Hashem, just as you are.
If you understand “mah chovaso ba’olamo,” what the world is really about and why we are here, then you can love others, and you aren’t jealous, intolerant and judgmental.
And you can be a kadosh.