Ari Sacher

‘Mimicry’ Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5783

The Portion of Kedoshim begins with a seemingly generic commandment [Vayikra 19:2]: “You shall be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy”. This commandment puts us in a bind. When the Torah commands that we shake the four species on Sukkot, we know that in order to implement this commandment, we must bind a citron, a palm frond, three myrtle leaves and two willow branches and then wave them in six directions. But how are we meant to implement this particular commandment? What must a person do in order to “be holy”?

Two of the most prominent of the medieval commentators offer diametrically opposed explanations. Rashi[1] explains that the Torah is telling us “Separate yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness”. That is to say, a person who wants to be holy must pedantically observe the rules of sexual conduct as they appear in the Torah. Holiness thrives in an environment of modesty. Rashi’s hypothesis explains why the commandment to be holy immediately follows the laws of forbidden unions (arayot) in Vayikra [18:1-30]. The Ramban[2] disagrees with Rashi and takes a more holistic view of the concept of holiness, relating it not with what the Torah has forbidden, but, rather, with what it has permitted. For example, the Torah permits eating hamburgers as long as they come from a cow[3] that has been ritually slaughtered, the meat has been salted, and the burger is not served with cheese. The Torah is cognizant that man not only needs food but that he enjoys eating a good meal. Nevertheless, the Torah does not want us to be gluttonous, stuffing our faces with hamburgers and wagyu steaks. When the Torah commands us to “be holy”, it is adjuring us to put limitations on our behaviour, especially as it pertains to the seeking of pleasure. The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [20a] refers to this concept as “Make yourself holy through what is permitted to you (Kadesh et atzm’cha b’mutar lecha)”. The Ramban leverages this explanation to interpret the second half of the verse: If we make ourselves holy, then we will merit cleaving to G-d.

I would like to put a different spin on the explanation of the Ramban, one that connects the commandment to be holy not only with the second part of the verse but with its entire context[4]. We begin with a question: What is it that causes trends? What causes tech bubbles and housing booms? Here are a few quotes that exemplify this question:

I woke up one day and suddenly decided that I wanted to run a marathon – amazingly, all of my friends had a similar realization when they hit their mid-thirties, too.

I got the brilliant idea that Substack is objectively the best publishing platform for my long-form essay writing, based on all the ‘data’ – right around the time that everyone else and their mother seems to be arriving at the same conclusion.”

I decided to get a dog during COVID because I’ve been wanting a dog for a long time and now seems like as good a time as ever. (Never mind that I’m the only one in my friend group who hasn’t, yet, and these guys share pictures of their puppies on Instagram along with the rest of the world on nearly a daily basis.)”

In all of these cases, the person who has made a decision claims to have done so completely autonomously. The fact that his social milieu has made similar decisions is, to him, completely irrelevant. The reason this person chose Substack, and not, say, Medium or Ghost, is because he did the calculations after which he concluded that Substack was the preferred platform. The incorrect assumption that a person’s desires are all his own is what the French social scientist René Girard calls ‘The Romantic Lie.’ We want to believe – we convince ourselves – that our desires come from somewhere deep in our own psyches, that we know what is desirable to us, that we know a good thing when we see it. Girard’s Theory of Mimetic Desire shatters this myth into smithereens. According to Girard, our desires are subjective rather than objective and their subjective value is determined mimetically, based upon our relationships with others. Due to the way the human mind works, concludes Girard, any two people will naturally want to imitate each other.

Girard defines what he calls, “Models of Desire”. These models offer guidance as to what is desirable. In Girard’s words, “Models are people who show us what is worth wanting”. Models seem farther up ahead on the path we’re on; they can see around a corner that we cannot see around. We assume that they possess some insight into which direction to go that we do not possess. In short, we assume they have something that we do not, that they possess some quality of being that we do not. And so we follow them. Our desire, when directed by a model, becomes what Girard calls “mediated desire”. Mimetic desire has been proven both empirically in tests and neuro-scientifically via fMRI scans of the brain.

Mimetic desire is pertinent only regarding desire and not with basic necessity. We know what we need; we have no idea what we want. As such, mimetic desire can lead to two possible outcomes, one good and one bad. The good outcome is achieved when two or more people pursue the same goal without competing for resources. In the words of King Solomon [Ecclesiastes 4:12]: “A three-stranded cord will not quickly be broken.” On the other hand, mimetic desire can be deadly when the desired object cannot be shared. Competition leads to rivalries and potentially to violence. In the late 1980’s, people were killing people on the street and taking their Nike Air sneakers, whose popularity and desirability emanated not from of their inherent value but because everyone at the time was wearing them.

With Girard’s innovation in hand, we can now revisit the concept of holiness. When the Torah commands us to be holy, it is, as the Ramban explains, referring to desires and not requirements. It refers to how a Jew must live within the bounds of normative halacha. The Torah then defines our “Model of Desire”: We must be holy because G-d is holy, meaning that G-d is our model. But how can we mimic G-d? The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [133b] asks precisely this question and answers, “Just as He is compassionate and merciful, so too should you be compassionate and merciful.” We mimic G-d by performing wanton acts of compassion and by doing so, we create a society that is fair, a society that scorns competition and a society that creates those three-stranded cords. This mimicry is less of an ingredient and more of an additive: Every action that we perform must be performed with compassion and mercy. In Kabbalistic terms, mercy is a fusion of justice – taking – and kindness – giving. Showing mercy means living with self-restraint.

By paying attention to the context of the commandment, we can vividly see how the Torah encourages holiness. The commandment to be holy is given [Vayikra 19:1] to “the entire Congregation of Israel”[5]. By placing the commandment in this format, the Torah encourages mimicry: Be holy just like everyone else. Looking ahead at the next verse, the Torah states [Vayikra 19:3]: “A person must fear his mother and father”. Based on the commentary of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[6], my chavruta Avi Mandelbaum[7] suggested that the proximity of the two verses emphasizes how our relationship with G-d is mirrored by our relationship with our parents. The first people that a baby mimics is his parents. We give our children both nurture and nature. When we act with kindness and restraint, our children absorb from us the virtues of holiness, creating holy people, holy families and a holy nation.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[2] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and Israel in the thirteenth century.

[3] Or any other mammal that has split hooves and chews its cud.

[4] I got this idea from reading “Collective Illusions” by Todd Rose. Great way to pass long flights.

[5] It is one of three commandments given in this format.

[6] Rabbi Hirsch lived in Frankfurt-am-Mein in the nineteenth century.

[7] This week marks thirty days since his death. May his memory be a blessing.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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