During World War I, Eastern European Jewry was displaced. When the war ended, many found themselves in different towns than the ones they had previous lived and been raised in. Separated from their shtetlach, rabbonim and shuls, many were cut off from their spiritual nourishment and were weakened in their Torah observance.
A maggid arrived in the Radin Yeshiva as the Chofetz Chaim was addressing the bochurim, requesting that those blessed with oratory and communication skills use them to convince people to do teshuvah and return to the Yiddishkeit of their forbears.
When the sage finished speaking, the guest approached him. “Rebbe,” he said, “I came here from the big city. While there, I learned that there was a slackening in the observance of the halachos of Shabbos and taharah. I walked up to the bimah to deliver words of protest and inspiration for improvement. Even before I was finished speaking, people began getting up and berating me. I hurriedly finished my drosha and was very embarrassingly chased from the shul.
“Why are you setting up your talmidim for such failure? Perhaps, at a time like this, it is preferable to remain silent, for the people aren’t interested in hearing our message.”
The Chofetz Chaim asked the traveling darshan, “Please portray for me how you addressed the people in that shul.”
The maggid was surprised by the question. “How did I address them? What’s the question? I screamed the way a person screams when his house is going up in flames. Is there any other way to speak when people are trampling on all that is holy and dear?”
Softly, the Chofetz Chaim responded to the man, “Tell me, when you put on tefillin in the morning, did you also scream and yell? Explain to me, please, the difference between the observance of the mitzvah of tefillin and the mitzvah of tochacha. Just as there is no need to scream loudly when performing the mitzvah of ‘Ukeshartom le’os al yodecha’ (Devorim 6:8), there is no need to scream when performing the mitzvah of ‘Hochei’ach tochiach es amisecha’ (Vayikra 19:17).”
This week’s parsha of Kedoshim was given by Moshe “behakheil,” to the entirety of Klal Yisroel, the Toras Kohanim says, because “rov gufei Torah teluyim bah,” most of the rules of the Torah are dependent on it. Rishonim and Acharonim propose various explanations of the importance of Parshas Kedoshim.
Perhaps we can explain that not only are the commandments and teachings of this week’s parsha relevant to daily life and to each person, but also are the deeper lessons and understandings derived from the nuances and study of the exact text of the commandment relevant to much of our daily social interaction.
Take the commandment of tochacha, to reprove a person who sins. We might think that we admonish that person with spite and anger for their bad deed. We might believe that we should publicly shame the sinner without concern for his feelings.
The Torah follows the commandment of “hochei’ach tochiach es amisecha” with “velo sisa olov cheit – and you should not carry a sin for this.” We are being told how to conduct ourselves. Ostensibly, it means that since “kol Yisroel areivim zeh lozeh,” we are responsible for each other and we are obligated to set others straight. It also means that when we find a need to rebuke someone, we should do so in a way in which we do not sin by causing the person embarrassment. Also, discussing the transgression with him prevents you from transgressing the sin that precedes the mitzvah of tochacha in the posuk, namely, “lo sisna es achicha b’levovecha,” secretly disliking a fellow Jew.
All of this is included in the commandment that follows: “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” to love every Jew as you love yourself.
These mitzvos, and the others like them that are included in Parshas Kedoshim, are taught “behakheil,” because they are far reaching and represent what our core is.
This is the meaning, as well, of Hillel Hazokein’s statement to the man who wanted to know the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel said that it’s all about “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” because that is the foundation of Judaism.
We learn in Pirkei Avos (6:6) that there are 48 methods with which a person acquires Torah. All of them pertain to proper middos, conduct and achdus, representative of the commandments listed in Parshas Kedoshim. Thus, without observing “ve’ohavta lerei’acha kamocha,” a person cannot acquire Torah.
We are currently in the period of Sefiras Ha’omer. The Alter of Kelm would say that each day, we attempt to secure for ourselves another one of the 48 methods through which Torah is acquired.
We refer to the act of daily counting during the seven weeks from the offering of the korban ha’omer until the day of kabbolas haTorah as “Sefiras Ha’omer,” the counting of the omer. Why? The counting, seemingly, has nothing to do with the omer. Rather, it is a countdown from the days when we were released from slavery in Mitzryaim to the day the Torah was given.
Hashem freed us from Mitzrayim so that He could give us the Torah at Har Sinai on Shavuos. With anticipation, we count towards the great day. What does it have to do with the omer?
It is commonly taught that se’orim, barley, of which the korban omer is comprised, is a “maachal beheimah,” a low form of grain that is grown for animal consumption. We count from the low level that we were on upon our exit from Mitzrayim and seek to improve daily until we reach the summit of Har Sinai and are worthy of accepting the Torah on Shavuos.
In fact, the Rambam (Hilchos Temidim Umusofim 7:22) codifies the mitzvah of counting together with the halachos of the korban ha’omer, indicating that the count is connected to the omer offering. We begin at the low level of omer and count as we raise ourselves daily through the 48 devorim shehaTorah nikneis bohem to kabbolas haTorah.
The 48 methods are the ikkar of Torah. Without them, we remain with the se’orim, like animals. We gathered behakheil to learn the mitzvos pertaining to how we must deal with each other, because it is only through observing them and treating other people the way we want to be treated that we become bnei and bnos Torah.
If we don’t judge people properly, if we peddle gossip, if we are petty and jealous and vengeful, if we are dishonest or we are disrespectful of our parents and elders, then we can’t grow properly in Torah.
Just as those who aren’t punctilious in Shabbos observance cannot be considered shomrei Torah, those who are immoral, corrupt, depraved and shameless cannot be considered adherents to Torah.
We live in a world of dishonesty and depravity, where the unprincipled and obscene are heralded, praised and lauded. We need to be reminded constantly that their way is not ours. We aim to be holy and chaste, while the culture seeks lewdness and licentious pleasures.
We are told, “Kedoshim tihiyu. Be a holy and good people,” and we must live our lives by that credo. Why don’t we do all that is popular and attractive? Why isn’t proper conduct determined by the way prominent people of the surrounding culture act? Because we are commanded to be kedoshim. We live lives of holiness. We seek growth and advancement, not stagnation and decline. Our path leads to happiness and fulfillment, theirs to emptiness of substance.
Kedoshim was said behakheil because it refers to everyone – men, women and children – not just to the upper crust.
Every day we are tested anew, and every day we must prove that we really are different. Let the media mock us as insular when we cleave to a high moral rule, but let us not act in ways that allow them to mock us as dishonest and unpatriotic.
Proclaim for all that we are keepers of a sacred trust. Our way of life traces itself back to the midbar, where Moshe Rabbeinu repeated to us the words of Hashem, “Kedoshim tihiyu.”
Besides rebuilding the Ponovezher Yeshiva in Bnei Brak following the Second World War, the Ponovezher Rov also founded a children’s home for orphans who had survived the war and had nowhere to go.
He once arrived to join in the celebration of the bar mitzvah of the only child who survived the Kovno Ghetto. The simcha took place during the week of Parshas Shemini, which discusses the deaths of Nodov and Avihu, sons of Aharon Hakohein.
The Ponovezher Rov began speaking about the parsha, as he addressed the boy from Kovno. The pesukim discuss that Moshe Rabbeinu became angry at the two surviving sons, Elozor and Issomor. The posuk says, “Vayiktzof al Elozor ve’al Issomar bonov hanosarim leimor – And he became angry at Elozor and at Issomor, the remaining sons, saying.” Rashi explains the word leimor, saying, to mean that Moshe asked them to respond to what he had said.
What, asked the Rov, did Moshe want them to respond to?
The Rov cited the Chazal that Elozor and Issomor also should have been burned to death along with their brothers, but Hashem had mercy on Aharon and refrained from causing him the pain of losing his four sons.
The Rov remarked, “Moshe turned to the surviving brothers and said to them, ‘Why did Hashem keep you alive if not for you to be mekadeish Sheim Hashem? Answer me, therefore, where is your kiddush Hashem?”
He turned to the bar mitzvah boy and said, “From all the Jewish children in the Kovno Ghetto, you were the only one to survive. Do you know what Hashem says to you? ‘I kept you alive to be mekadeish Hashem.’ Hashem says, ‘Leimor, tell me, where is your kiddush Hashem?’
“And He doesn’t only say that to you,” the Rov continued. “Every Jewish child is a survivor. Hashem kept you alive to be mekadeish Hashem. Leimor, He calls out to you, ‘Answer Me. Answer and be mekadeish Hashem.’”
Many years have passed since that speech, and many years have passed since the Holocaust, but those of us who are alive, those of us who lived through it and those who were born to those who did, are all survivors. We are all here for a higher purpose. We are all kedoshim.
We all need to be living holy lives of kiddush Hashem. Leimor, let us all proclaim it loud and clear for all to hear and see. We are kedoshim. Our lives are kadosh. We seek to increase kedusha.
We aspire to be mekadshei Hashem wherever we are and in whatever we do.