This week, we are blessed to be reading and learning the parshiyos of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim, which contain in them some of the basics of Yahadus. In fact, Rashi cites the Medrash which states that Parshas Kedoshim was said by Moshe to the entirety of Klal Yisroel, because the majority of the body of Torah is included in it.
The parsha begins with the obligation for the people to be holy. We sometimes refer to a person, usually from previous generations, as holy, ah heilige Yid, as if it is a trait that is rare to come by. But the Torah does not differentiate. Hashem tells Moshe to tell all of the Jewish people that they need to be holy.
Whether you are a man or a woman, old or young, rich or poor, dedicating your life to Torah study or working to support your family, you are obligated to be kadosh, holy. Irrespective of where we live or the surrounding culture, we are all obligated to be kedoshim, whether we live in Meah Shearim, are ensconced comfortably in the lap of luxury, or are somewhere in-between. Our mantra must be to consider what we are doing and to determine that it will increase our personal holiness and the kedusha of the world in general.
We were all created “b’tzelem Elokim,” in the image of Hashem. We all have a neshomah, which seeks to direct us to do good and to be good. The way we treat people can make us holy. The way we help people can make us holy. The way we walk and talk can make us holy. It boils down to love. If we love Hashem, we can become holy. If we love Hashem, we can love the people He created and we can show that we have become holy. If we love people, we are able to become holy. Being holy isn’t reserved only for people from eras gone by who lived in different worlds and under different circumstances. We, too, can be holy.
If someone needs help and you help him, you are on your way to becoming holy. If you would rather take a Sunday nap but instead you trudge about with another Yid, helping him make ends meet, then you are on your way to becoming holy. If you were up late last night and wake up groggy, but still go to the morning shiur and to daven, you have what it takes to be holy.
We can all be holy. Holiness isn’t reserved only for angels. Anyone who learns Torah and performs the mitzvos can be holy. Anyone who works on his emunah and bitachon can be holy because he won’t get upset by comments other people say and won’t seek revenge from people who hurt him.
Holy people are sweet, loving and real. They aren’t tempted by fleeting passions and luxuries. They are not motivated by wealth, and prestige doesn’t call out to them. They do what is right because it is right. They are kind and thoughtful, seeking to bring out the good when it is hidden. They protect themselves from evil and things that will damage their mind and their soul. They are calm and at peace, never rushing or pushing, waiting their turn relaxingly. Holy people take the admonition of “Kedoshim tihiyu” seriously. They see “Ve’ohavta lereiacha kamocha” not as good advice, but as the proper way to live.
Before the Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, established the famed Ponovezher Yeshiva, he founded Botei Avos to absorb the many orphaned children whose parents were killed during the Holocaust. The children arrived in Israel alone and impoverished, with no place to go. In the orphan home, they were educated and given a clean place to sleep and eat. They were cared for by a loving staff, overseen and directed by the Rov himself.
One night, without prior warning, a bus full of children who had just arrived in Israel pulled up to the home, which was not prepared for them. Mattresses were found in storage, but there were no blankets or linen.
Rav Kahaneman, accompanied by his assistant, Rav Binyomin Zev Deutsch, headed to the home of Reb Eliyohu Eisenstadt, who owned the local linen store. They arrived at his darkened home and began knocking on the door. Mr. Eisenstadt had already gone to bed and didn’t hear them.
The Ponovezher Rov began knocking harder and pleading loudly, “Reb Eliyohu, Reb Eliyohu, shtei oif l’avodas haBorei. Wake up to serve Hashem! Yiddishe kinderlach hoben gekumen tzu lernen Torah, un mir huben nit kein kishin un koldre far zei. Shtei oif, Reb Eliyohu, un efen der gesheft. Jewish children want to learn Torah and we don’t have pillows or blankets for them. Dear Reb Eliyohu, please wake up and open the store for them.”
Hearing the pleas, Mr. Eisenstadt woke up and ran to the door. He wasn’t upset at the least that his sleep was disturbed. He quickly dressed, got his keys, and, with the Rov and Rav Deutsch in tow, went running to the store to supply the Yiddishe kinderlach with what they needed.
Ve’ohavta lereiacha kamocha. Three holy men were motivated by the same thing: their love for Torah and for other people. And when Yiddishe kinderlach need pillows and blankets, holy people drop what they are doing, in the middle of the day or night, and run to help.
We can all do it. We can all be holy.
Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover was a great Litvishe master of the revealed, as well as the hidden, Torah. His seforim are treasured until this day, widely quoted by baalei machshovah. He was a very holy Yid.
One time, when Rav Chover was traveling in Lita, he entered a town. When he arrived in the Jewish neighborhood, he heard people crying. He was told that the army had come to town and took away young Jewish boys for forced conscription into the army. They were being held in the local jail.
In the days of the Cantonists, such was the practice. The boys would be ripped from their parents and families, and kept in the army for twenty-five years. The lucky ones survived that long, but they were ignorant of their heritage, and most became ruffians during their time away.
Rav Chover sized up the situation quickly and slithered away. He changed out of his rabbinic garb into the clothing of the local peasants and began prancing around and calling attention to himself as if he were drunk. The police quickly came and asked for his government-issued identification and travel permit. He mumbled and stammered and failed to answer the questions they posed to him. He was taken away and thrown into jail for creating a public nuisance.
When the big iron gates of the jail were slammed behind him, the rov approached the wailing children and told them who he was. As his soul wept for the poor children, he spoke to them about Yiddishkeit and what lay ahead of them. Gingerly and softly, he told them that they would be taken far away and would remain alone. He spoke to them about kashrus and asked them not to partake of non-kosher food. He told them never to forget where they came from and that they were Jews.
“Don’t forget Hashem, no matter what happens to you,” he said. He told them stories of Jewish heroism as they began falling asleep.
In the morning, when the guards returned, he addressed them once again. He told them that now they would be separated. “I will now be beaten for getting in here to speak to you, and you will be taken on a long journey to years of nisyonos. I don’t know if we will ever meet again in this world, but we will definitely meet in the next world, where I hope you will make me proud.”
With that, the great rov was dragged away.
What provoked him to think of getting himself into the jail with the children? What prompted him to speak to them so lovingly and carefully about the painful future that awaited them? How did the tzaddik who spent his days and nights poring over sifrei kodesh find the right words to say to them?
It was because he was a kadosh, he was holy, and thus he loved every Jew and cared about them as he cared about himself. His love for them overwhelmed him and caused him to do what he could in an effort to keep them kedoshim. He was a kadosh not only because his life was all about Torah, but also because it was about loving and helping every Jew he could.
This is the explanation of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos that we read this week (3:10), which states that a person who finds favor in the eyes of men finds favor in the eyes of Hashem.
Obviously, the intention of Chazal, who utilize these chapters to teach us timeless lessons of honesty, integrity and human behavior, is not to say that we should act with people in ways that simply play up to their egos and need for constant gratification. There has to be more to the message.
A person who deals honestly with others in financial matters, is faithful in his relationships, and is respectful of other people is inherently someone who believes and trusts in Hashem. Since he knows that everything that happens is because Hashem wills it so, he bears malice to none, for he acknowledges that whatever came his way was sent to him by Hashem and the loss he suffered through dealing with the other person was Heaven-sent. The bad guy was only a messenger to cause him the damage that was meant to be.
He doesn’t cheat or lie in his business, because he knows that regardless of his chicanery, he will earn whatever he was destined to. He treats people with respect, for they are a tzelem Elokim, just as he is. He loves all, for the Torah commands him to. He seeks to use every experience to raise and improve himself to be more of a kadosh, for he knows that is his ultimate ambition in life.
Rabbeinu Yonah (ad loc) cites the Gemara (Yoma 86) that states when people encounter a person who studies, teaches and conducts his business dealings honestly and faithfully, people say that he should be praised for studying Torah, and his parents and rebbi should be praised for teaching him Torah. It is through the study of Torah that a person becomes refined in his manner and conduct. It is for that reason that Hashem is also pleased with him, because he has studied His Torah and lives his life by it.
We, who have been blessed with fine parents and an exemplary Torah education, have what it takes to lead proper lives and always be respectful of others and their needs. Just as we wouldn’t slacken in the observance of other mitzvos, we should not weaken our observance of the mitzvah of treating people the way we want to be treated.
We must deal with everyone with respect and decency. Should we ever be in a situation where we feel it is necessary to correct someone or admonish him, it should be done in a way that does not cause embarrassment and lead a person to become depressed or lacking in self-worth. It must be done with the same love and consideration that we would desire should we ever need to be rectified or reprimanded.
This is how we understand another Mishnah in this perek of Pirkei Avos (3:11), which teaches that a person who publicly embarrasses someone forfeits his share in the World to Come. This is because someone who is deficient in the ability to treat people properly is lacking in the knowledge of Torah. A student of Torah recognizes the tzelem Elokim in others and observes the mitzvos of “ve’ohavta lereiacha kamocha” and “hocheiach tochiach es amisecha velo sisa olov cheit,” admonishing others in a way that doesn’t cause him embarrassment.
Someone who is quick to castigate and is flippant in his condemnation and humiliation of others demonstrates that he is ignorant in the ways of the Torah. Thus, he himself will come to discard proper observance of other mitzvos and not merit Olam Haba.
Let us ignore the foibles we are surrounded by and the media which hypes improper behaviors. Let us treat all with love and respect.
Living the life of a kadosh is easier said than done, but Chazal (Yoma 39a) teach that if we expend effort to lead a sanctified life, Hakadosh Boruch Hu assists us in reaching increasingly higher levels of kedusha. We have to take the first steps, and they may come with difficulty, but as we continue climbing, the steps become increasingly easier to ascend.
During these days of Sefirah, as we approach Kabbolas HaTorah, we should seek to infuse each day with added degrees of kedusha as we prepare ourselves to be worthy of accepting the Torah.
What better time is there than this week, as we lain the parshiyos and study the perek of Pirkei Avos which can help guide us.