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What Is Holy?

Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” [Leviticus 19:2]

I don’t get it.

I get the part of G-d being holy, because, well, he’s G-d. But how can we become holy? And why should we think we can become holy just because G-d is? G-d is omnipotent, ubiquitous and can dunk a basketball without leaving the ground. That’s not going to happen to us.

The next two verses in our weekly Torah portion of Kedoshim don’t seem to provide any explanation: “Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your G-d.”

As it turns out, this question was raised at least 200 years ago by Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn, who wrote a commentary on the Midrash called Pirush Maharzu. Little is known about him other than he was born in Hrodna, now Belarus, moved to Vilna in the early 19th Century and avoided taking a rabbinical position. The name of his commentary is a Yiddish acronym of his own name.

Rabbi Zev seems to be an exception as most commentators take the word “holy” for granted. They agree that the Torah wants a Jew to separate from sin — even if that means avoiding actions that are not sinful but can lead to violations of divine law. Their example is what the Torah calls Ervah, or sexual misconduct. The ban on such activities is so central to Judaism that G-d wanted the entire nation to hear it.
The same goes for the commandment to respect parents. “ Every one of you shall fear his father and his mother,” says Shlomo Ben Yitzhaki, or Rashi. This, too, is holiness. That is followed by “…you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your G-d.” G-d created you and your parents. Both have an obligation to follow the divine word.
Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai knew both sides of the parental coin. He lived in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. After the killing of millions of Jews, Rome was determined to stamp out Judaism. The occupiers of the Land of Israel banned circumcision, Torah study, Jewish holidays, Sabbath, ritual baths. They changed the Hebrew names of towns and cities to Latin. They fostered a new religion meant to take young Jews away from the faith of their fathers.
Much of Shimon’s life was spent fighting the Romans. Following his teacher Rabbi Akiva, the young disciple helped spread the oral Talmud among ordinary Jews. When Akiva was executed by the Romans, Shimon continued his defiance. He told his colleagues that the Romans must be resisted in every way. Soon, the secret police were after him, and the rabbi and his son Elazar hid in a cave for 13 years. Father and son spent day and night praying and studying Torah. They became the holiest men in their generation.
Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai says, ‘When does the name of G-d become great in His world? When He exacts the measure of law from the wicked. [Midrash Rabbah 24:1]
When Rabbi Shimon died, Elazar was appointed to be a judge in the Roman administration of the Land of Israel. Elazar didn’t want the job, but soon fell into the trap of supplying a monthly quota of Jews convicted of robbery and theft. The penalty was death, and Elazar became known as “Vinegar the son of wine,” a moniker he couldn’t bear. The low point came when he ordered the arrest of a launderer who called him that, and soon the man was hung. The contrast between Elazar and his father, who succeeded in rescinding the Roman ban on Judaism, was horrifying.
Elazar was not the only one. Rabbi Yishmael was also recruited to bring innocent Jews to the gallows. Yishmael’s father was Rabbi Yossi Ben Halafta, one of the five principal disciples of Rabbi Akiva and secretly ordained during the Roman ban. Rabbi Yossi then fled to Assia, or Asia Minor.
Once, Elijah appeared before Yishmael. “How long will you hand over the people of our G-d to their execution?” the prophet asked. Yishmael didn’t know what to say: “What can I do? It is the king’s orders.”
Elijah then recalled Rabbi Yossi. “Your father fled to Assia. You run to Ludkia.”
The rest of Kedoshim repeats the theme of holiness as a function of separation. Do the Jews want to be close to G-d? Then, they have to become holy. That means walking away from other nations that are not interested. Think of an athlete, astronaut or singer who watches what he eats, gets sufficient sleep, exercises daily and focuses on his profession. There might be a party going on, but he has to get home by 10 p.m.
And you shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine. [Leviticus 20:26]
The distinction between holy and profane was clear to Jacob Ben Asher. He lived in Germany in the late 13th Century at a time of incredible oppression. Still, the Jews were useful to the gentile regime, particularly in their vast tributes to avoid expulsion. When the government needed money, its thugs would kidnap a prominent rabbi and hold him for ransom. When it was his turn, Jacob’s father, Rabbi Asher, known as the Rosh, fled Germany with his family.
As an adult in Spain, Rabbi Jacob refused any rabbinical post and chose a life of Torah and poverty. When not learning, he spent his time raising money for the poor. To make Jewish observance easier, the rabbi wrote a comprehensive code of law applicable to the Diaspora and studied to this day.
Rabbi Jacob saved some of his pearls for a commentary on the Torah called Baal Haturim. In this week’s Torah portion, he draws from the deepest secrets of Judaism as well as the genocidal environment of medieval Europe. The portion Kedoshim, he says, contains 70 commandments, one for each nation on this planet. The nations don’t want or feel the divine spirit. So, they turn to debauchery, witchcraft, blood sport and anything that can keep them occupied.
You are different, the Baal Haturim says. G-d has separated Israel from the rest of the world to make you holy. You don’t need the nations. Be smart and take advantage of that privilege.
For I [G-d] separated you from the nations and brought the divine spirit among you. You don’t need Ov or Yidoni [forms of witchcraft] as the nations do, who do not have a prophet and don’t know where to turn. Therefore, they need Ov and Yidoni.
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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