With the High Holidays quickly approaching, this is a time of year when Jews throughout the world rededicate themselves to the notion of holiness.
In truth, the concept of personal holiness (Kedusha) is not simply a lofty-sounding ideal, but an actual religious obligation. As it says in Leviticus 19:2, "You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy."
R. Avraham Pam, ZTL makes an interesting comment on the obligation for a Jew to be holy. He notes that it is common for a Jew to look around and find himself surrounded by a world of immorality and obsession with materialism. Against this backdrop, one might become satisfied by performing only one mitzvah, or with studying just a bit of Torah, because it already puts one ahead of the game, and far ahead of almost everyone else!
Explains R. Pam -- a person must never fall into this trap or succumb to this seductive ‘logic.’
This is why the verse states, “You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy.” In other words, don’t compare your holiness to others, compare it to His! Even if you know more Torah or observe more commandments than 90% of the people around you, keep going! Hashem Himself is to be your barometer and the measuring stick for your spiritual attainments.
In this vein, I’ve often made the following observation:
People compare, but in the wrong direction. In material matters, they look at those who have more than them. This is never good, as it breeds jealously and instills a desire to ‘compete’ in the pursuit for material acquisitions. When it comes to spiritual matters, many look at those who have less than them. This too is not good, as this outlook breeds complacency with one’s spiritual attainments.
In truth, it should be totally the opposite!
In spiritual matters, one must look at those with more, and in material matters look at those with less. This is the correct perspective for one who wishes to grow, and whose orientation is towards Olam Haba (the World to Come).
It has also been my experience that this attitude breeds far more happiness and contentment than the reverse.
In my studies, I was very pleased to discover that Midrash Shmuel (Avos 4:1) derives the same lessons from words found at the end of the first paragraph of Aleinu -- a classic prayer which is recited by Jews the world over, three times a day, and is found in every Siddur in the world.
It says in the Aleinu prayer, “Bashamayim Mi’maal V’al Haaretz Mitachas,” which is a description of how it is supposed to be.
When it comes to matters of Shamayim (Heaven) (ie. Bashamayim), look ‘up’ to those who have more than you (ie. Mi’maal), and when it comes to matters of material concern (ie. V’al Haaretz), look ‘down’ at those with less (ie. Mitachas)!
This idea is also at the core of a famous teaching found in the Talmud (Kesuvos 50a).
The Gemara relates that Elijah the Prophet appeared, in the guise of a person, to Rabbi Akiva and his wife Rachel. This illustrious couple – deeply devoted to living lives of sanctity – was completely destitute. Elijah begged them for a little straw. He explained that he needed it for his wife, because she had just given birth, and had nothing to lie down upon. Even though R. Akiva and his wife would sleep in their straw, because they lacked other ‘bedding,’ Rabbi Akiva exclaimed in response, “See, here is a person who lacks even straw!”
In other words, despite having few material possessions, he was still able to focus upon what he did have.