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‘You shall be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’ (Leviticus 19:1)
Often the Hebrew words relating to fundamental theological concepts are the most difficult to define and translate, and therefore to understand and apply. The Hebrew words tefila (usually translated as prayer), teshuva (return, repentance) and kadosh (holy) are good examples.
opens with the general commandment “You shall be holy” – linking the quality of holiness to God who, according to Leviticus 19:1 is “ontologically” holy.
Rudolf Otto, in his ground-breaking study “The Idea of the Holy,” links holiness to the mystical, the transcendental, the “numinous.” The sages of the Midrash, taking their cue from the first time the word appears in the Bible – “And the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Genesis 2:3) – contrast holiness with blessing: Blessing is expressed in material gifts, whereas holiness is expressed in our ability to rise above the physical and cleave to divine eternity.
Shabbat contains an amalgam of both, consisting of the blessings brought by the wine and special foods with the sanctity wrought by Shabbat songs of praise and Torah study.
Thus, we can understand why Rashi defines the positive command “to be holy” as referring to separating oneself from sexual immorality and why the Ramban (Nahmanides) defines our commandment as meaning even permitted activities should not be taken to excess, such as eating and drinking inebriating beverages.
I would like to go one step farther. In next week’s reading, God commands us; “…I shall be sanctified (nikdashti
, made holy) in the midst of the children of Israel…” (Leviticus 22:32). Rashi cites the Midrash Torat Kohanim
(22, 137): “Give yourself over and sanctify My Name… even to the extent of giving up your life.” Through its dual use of the word kadosh
the Torah is associating the requirement to control one’s physical desires and the need to be willing to give up one’s very life for the sake of religious values. What is the connection?
When the Torah describes the creation of the human being in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), it is explaining that the human being will be a composite, part-beast, part-divine.
The material aspect of the human being is legitimate, blessed, and capable of sanctification. It is the spiritual element, however, which can help us connect ourselves to the divine and achieve eternity. Divinely given mitzvot, commandments, help us refine and ennoble the physical aspects of our being.
Ultimately, however, the physical body decomposes and merges with the eternal soil. According to Maimonides, it is the soul – the divine within each of us – which enables us to cleave to God and live beyond our physical lives. Hence if an individual lives a holy life, spending his sojourn on this earth developing his soul-link to God, his passing from the physical body to the eternal world of souls will be seamless – a movement from life to life.
This is the connection between the commandment to be holy in this world and the requirement to give up our physical life for an eternal ideal where necessary. From the backdrop of this idea, a most difficult story (Tractate Semahot
, chapter 8) recorded about Rabbi Akiva will become clear.
“When Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Akiva’s son, became ill, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Torah in his academy. He kept sending messengers to check on his son’s condition. The first returned, and reported that R. Shimon’s condition was grave. Rabbi Akiva told his students to continue asking him Talmudic questions.
The second messenger said the condition was critical.
Rabbi Akiva continued the Torah dialogue.
The third messenger said the youth was in his death throes.
Rabbi Akiva told his students to keep asking.
When the fourth messenger said. ‘Rabbi Shimon is at peace, he has
passed from this world,’ Rabbi Akiva removed his phylacteries, tore his
clothing, and told his disciples: ‘Come. We are now obligated to leave
the House of Study and tend to the dead.’”
Rabbi Akiva was a very feeling, sensitive husband and father; he was
hardly callous to the condition of his son. He knew his child was going
to the eternal world of God; and he felt the best way to establish real
and eternal contact with him and for him would be by intensifying his
relationship to God’s words and God’s will. Rabbi Akiva was trying to
be his son’s bridge between worlds.The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone
Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.