What does it mean to be holy? In our generation, the emotionally-charged observance of Yom Hazikaron – when we honor the memories of those who have lost their lives defending the State of Israel – provides poignant answers to this ancient question.
I would like to offer some context for this matter by citing a teaching from Rabbi Yechezkel “Chatzkel” Abramsky, z”l, legendary sage and rabbinical judge of London and Jerusalem. He taught that three aspects of our ethnicity create Jewish identity: belonging to a special nation, a special religion, and a special holy community. These three elements are expressed in the Tahanun supplication that we recite after the daily Shemoneh Esrei prayer.
The first element is reflected in the words: “Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and do not destroy Israel, those who recite ‘Shema Yisrael’.” Fascinatingly, the prayer speaks of “Israel” and not of “Jews”, of our national heritage rather than of our religious faith. Israel is, after all, the name of our common patriarch, Yisrael; it is the special term for our national homeland – and every family descendant responds to the familiar words “Shema Yisrael”.
We begin this prayer by entreating the Almighty to preserve also those Jews who do not identify with a traditional code of conduct or a commitment to a particular faith or set of beliefs. It is enough that they are citizens of the State of Israel, or diaspora Jews who identify with the “Jewish family” in times of crisis. This is the covenant of Jewish peoplehood that God established with Abraham.
The prayer continues: “Guardian of a unique people, guard the remnant of a unique nation, and do not destroy a unique people, who declare Your Name one and unique, the Lord our God is one and unique.”
In this stage of the prayer, we ask for the preservation also of those who see themselves as “Jews” in addition to being Israelis, those who live a unique traditional lifestyle of Sabbath, festivals and kashrut, and those who are committed to faith in one God. These Jews express the covenant at Sinai, the special religious beliefs and way of life that make Jews a singular and unique people.
The prayer concludes: “Guardian of a sacred people, guard the remnant of a sacred nation, and do not destroy a sacred people, who triplicate with three sanctities before the Sacred One.” This is the final and highest aspect of our ethnicity: in addition to our being a nation and a religion – Jews and Israelis, bound up together with a family-nation-state and committed to a system of traditions and beliefs – we must also strive to be sacred, holy.
This is the very first commandment of this week’s Torah reading of Kedoshim: “you shall be holy.” What does this mean? Yosef Goodman, z”l, son of my beloved friends and fellow residents of Efrat, Mordechai and Anne Goodman, demonstrated how to answer this question.
In early 2006, Yosef, a member of an elite IDF unit, was participating in an army training maneuver at the Nitzanim base near the city of Ashdod. While jumping out of an army plane, Yosef’s parachute became entangled with the parachute of his unit commander.
Facing terrifying choices, Yosef made the brave and holy decision to disentangle his parachute, which would save the life of the commander, but which would catapult him to certain death on the ground below. At the funeral on Har Herzl, an IDF officer praised Yosef, calling him a fearless soldier who showed everyone the meaning of Zionism. Yosef, z”l, is a kadosh, a holy Jew.
Who is holy? Roi Klein, z”l, a young married father of two, who loved his nation, his land and his Torah with all his heart and soul. In the Second Lebanon War in the Summer of 2006 against Hezbollah, Roi found himself in the town of Bint Jbeil removing armaments with his army reserve unit. He was standing near the entrance to a building when a terrorist threw a grenade that landed near him. Klein yelled out to his men, “Klein is dead! Klein is dead!” and, while proclaiming “Shema Yisrael!”, jumped on the live grenade, muffling the explosion with his body and saving the lives of all of his fellow soldiers. Roi, z”l, is a kadosh, a holy Jew.
Please, God, preserve all members of the Jewish nation: the Jews who have only the most basic of Jewish ethnic ties; those who have deep Jewish religious ties; and those who have attained a degree of God-like holiness! Preserve all members of the Jewish nation, for each of us has the capacity to attain holiness!
RABBI RISKIN’S VIDEO COMMENTARY TO PARSHAT ACHAREI MOT-KEDOSHIM: “Gush Etzion, Ben Gurion and Israel”
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.