Making God Part of Your Life
Rav David Milston
“And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to all the congregation of the Children of Israel, and say to them, you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Vayikra, 19:1-2)
The Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvot explains there are certain ideas in Torah that are so all-encompassing they are not to be counted as singular directives. They do not involve one particular action but rather a mode of behavior affecting our entire approach to life. Hence, those who count the mitzvah of “you shall be holy” as one of the 613 Mitzvot are mistaken. Being holy is a global instruction to be applied to every one of the commandments.
But what exactly is ‘being holy’?
Rashi seems to view this parasha as a thematic continuation of the previous chapter. There the subject was promiscuity and forbidden relationships. Being holy is therefore a directive to distance ourselves from immoral sexual behavior. From these few words we can begin to decipher some kind of definition of holiness.
Man is a complex amalgam of body and soul; a combination unique to human beings and our objective in life. It also creates the ongoing phenomenon of free choice. Every day we choose whether to emulate animals or angels. Yes, nothing could be easier than to follow our physical urges; sometimes they are so emphatic we are left with no alternative. For example, we are sometimes so tired we simply cannot function.
However, in general the choice is ours. The more we favor the needs of the soul over the urges of the body the closer to the Almighty we become. And the reverse is true as well: the more we surrender to our physical nature the more distanced we are from the Creator of the Universe.
Rashi is therefore telling us what we will achieve by conforming to the way of life defined by the Torah. The less we are involved in the physical nature of the world, and the more we push ourselves towards objectives of the soul, the closer we will be to Hashem. Our holiness is defined by distancing ourselves from the physical world and hence moving closer to the spiritual ideal.
However, we could deduce from Rashi’s explanation that being holy is not necessarily an active instruction; it is a description of a reality pertaining to someone controlling their sexual urges. It would therefore appear that Rashi and Rambam are not in agreement. The latter seems to understand holiness as being a general phenomenon covering all Mitzvot, whereas the former speaks of holiness in terms of separating oneself from animal desires.
The Ramban’s classification of holiness is famous, but nevertheless worthy of review, because it implies a wider understanding of Judaism and Torah. However, let us momentarily digress before recalling the Ramban.
At the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach we are told about Ya’akov’s preparation for his meeting with Eisav. He initially sends several detailed messages to his brother, one of which (according to Rashi) explains he had adhered to all 613 Mitzvot the entire period he was in his uncle Lavan’s house.
This is certainly not the only reference connecting the Avot with the observance of commandments not yet given to Am Yisrael. Another example is Rashi telling us Avraham was celebrating Pesach when the three angels came to visit him. What is this teaching us?
Even if we are to assume Avraham was a prophet, thus explaining how he could celebrate Pesach years before the events of Egypt occurred, it is quite problematic to explain how exactly Ya’akov could possibly keep all 613 Mitzvot. It is impossible for one human being – however great – to fulfill all 613 Mitzvot. Some are only relevant if one has sinned; others specifically relate to a leper, a nazarite, a Kohen or a Levi. Some are for the entire people or just for the Beit Din. And some are strictly for women while others are exclusively for men. So what did Ya’akov mean to convey to his brother Eisav?
Before we propose an answer, let us define the role of Torah. At first glance, it appears to be a book of instructions teaching us how to lead our lives. But as we mentioned at the very start of Sefer Bereishit, if this was the complete definition of Torah, Sefer Bereishit in its entirety as well as large chunks of Shemot, Bamidbar and Devarim would be nothing more than superfluous narrative with no real purpose. We must therefore extend our starting definition.
The purpose of Torah is not simply to list 613 technical dos and don’ts. The objective of God’s guide is to teach us a way of life. This is somewhat defined by individual directives, but only if those directives are performed in a certain spirit, and only if all our actions combine to reflect an overall derech in this world. The details of 613 commandments are therefore insufficient; we also need to learn the way our Avot and Imahot led their lives, and we need to know about Bnei Yisrael’s adventures in the wilderness.
The Torah narrative does not always explain technical information regarding particular Mitzvot, but it does give us an essential description of how a Jew should live in this world. Without this, we may well succeed in fulfilling all Mitzvot in practical terms whilst remaining totally irreligious! Indeed, from the very fact the narrative is there, we understand something vital about the Mitzvot themselves.
Mitzvot reflect a way of life. They are not societal reactions to problems in the community, but absolute educational themes that will be eternally relevant because they represent infinite Truth. We don’t always appreciate the educational message but we can rest assured it exists.
Maybe this is what Ya’akov refers to in his message to Eisav. He does not imply he literally fulfilled every mitzvah, but that he had the strength of character to retain his beliefs and way of life even in an idolatrous and immoral atmosphere such as uncle Lavan’s house.
When Chazal tell us our forefathers fulfilled the Torah, they may be implying they lived their lives in such a way that would later be encapsulated in the format of Torah. They lived as dedicated servants of the Almighty; their entire reason for being was the service of God. We are not of the same caliber of our Avot, and so Hashem took their derech and transformed it into practical Mitzvot. These Mitzvot must always reflect Derech Hashem.
And with this in mind we come to the Ramban. He seems to agree with the Rambam in principle. He understands the “be holy” directive at the start of our parasha to be general, referring to the way in which we should approach our Judaism as a whole. He then shows great concern how we could so easily miss the entire point of religiosity.
Keeping Mitzvot is the means to the end – achieving a closer relationship with God. We have to know we cannot reach that goal by technically fulfilling the requirements. Of course we should learn Torah to know what to do, but we must never forget that Mitzvot are tools to enhance our life. They are not independent, religious details; they are divinely designed to engulf every aspect of our lives.
Being holy is about letting our Judaism envelop our entire being. On occasion, that may mean refraining from doing things technically permitted, or doing more than we are essentially required to do. Being holy is about understanding why our lives cannot and must not become a daily chain of simply obeying instructions.
This idea can be easily compared to marriage. There is an accepted mode of behavior in a marital relationship; the husband has his responsibilities and the wife deals with other matters. But woe to the couple who live their marriage as a business partnership, calculating gains and losses from each other’s activities! How long can such a relationship last, or is this even a relationship at all? “God is in the details.” Yes, it is well worth remembering God every so often as we stringently observe the minutiae of Halacha.
It seems the further we roam in our exile, the less real spirit there is to our yiddishkeit. In the last few decades it is no coincidence there has been increasing emphasis on Halacha, perhaps with the younger generation showing a real thirst for spiritual expression. Halachic detail is essential and can never be replaced or ignored but alone it is simply insufficient; it must be accompanied by the Jewish spirit. We must never forget that very same Halacha is an external expression of the philosophies and motives of Judaism and Jewish life.
And the reverse is equally true as well, again especially in our times. Undirected or misdirected spiritual expression can be very dangerous without a detailed halachic framework.
“Be holy!” says the Ramban. As the children of Hashem we must not simply do as He asks, but try and understand what He wants from us, even if it seems unnecessary, uncomfortable, or incomprehensible at times. In addition to referring to the Shulchan Aruch before we contemplate a certain action, it is good exercise to ask ourselves if this is something our forefathers would have done.
Holiness is perhaps best defined as closeness to God, and this seems to be what the Ramban is implying. A law-abiding citizen does exactly what the law requires of him; no more and no less. But the minister who wishes to remain close to the king will need to do more than the minimum. He needs to know the king as well as he can; what annoys him and what pleases him, above and beyond the letter of the law. If he truly loves his master he will endeavor to go out of his way to truly understand and act accordingly.
Let us conclude with the emphatic words of the Ktav Sofer (HaRav Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer – comments on our verse) supported by the brilliance of the Ramchal, who denote a crucial element of holiness by reading our entire verse in full:
“You shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Even though the Almighty is the ultimate form of holiness, it has never stopped Him from involving Himself in this world. Be holy like Me. The result of ascendancy should not be condescension. Just because someone is moving forward in his understanding of the Almighty does not mean he can alienate himself from other Jews or from the world as a whole. This is not genuine holiness; we can call it pseudo-kedusha or egocentricity in disguise. Real Kedusha is deeply connected to reality, with all that entails.
As the Ramchal says, it may sometimes be necessary to temporarily separate oneself from mundane material realities. However, we must never forget that our ideal is to bring the Almighty into this material world; to live a physical life and transform it into an ongoing spiritual experience. The objective of Halacha is categorically not to lock us away from society, but rather to accompany us through the streets of life and allow us to bring Hashem into every part of our being.
Let us end our brief study of holiness with the beautiful words of the Ramchal: “If one sanctifies himself with the Holiness of his Creator, even his physical actions come to partake of holiness…
Note the distinction between one who is pure and one who is holy. The earthly actions of the first are necessary; he is motivated by necessity alone, so his actions escape the evil in earthliness and remain pure. But they do not approach holiness. It would be better for the pure individual if one could get along without the need for earthliness – He is pure in that he has separated himself from any material reality, living in a totally spiritual environment, but he is not holy!
However, one who is holy, and clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth amidst the love and fear of his Creator – such a person is as one walking before God in the land of the living, here in this world. Such a person is himself considered a tabernacle, a sanctuary, an altar…
Scholars, who are holy in their ways and in all of their deeds, are literally comparable to the sanctuary and the altar, for the Divine Presence dwells with them just as it dwelled in the sanctuary. Their eating is similar to the offering up of a sacrifice upon the altar, and the filling of their throats is analogous to the filling of the basins…
In short, holiness consists of one clinging so closely to God he does not depart or move from the Blessed One in any deed he might perform; until the physical objects he uses become elevated because of his having used them.
Let us be holy, because the Lord our God is holy.