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Creating Kedusha / Homemade Holiness - Emor 5775

05/10/2015 02:38:20 PM


From time to time we should revisit the fundamental question of what it means to be a Jew. Of course, there is the normative aspect of being a Jew. A Jew is bound by the Mitzvot of the Torah.

One of the important aspects of teaching prospective converts is to make sure that they realize that while a Gentile there are many things they are permitted to do, but once one emerge from the Mikva, that person is a full fledged Jew and is now bound by many obligations and prohibitions.

This conversation is so important, that it is reiterated at the very last moment before the convert immerses in the Mikvah.

But is that all? Is Judaism just a series of do’s and don’t, a collection of commandments. Is it possible to live our life as Jews observing each and every detail of Judaism without considering what grand, overarching lessons those details are actually trying to teach us? And if it is possible, is it desirable?

In short, can we see our faith as trying to develop an overall approach to life, a Hashkafat Olam?

Here I wish to consider a distinction made by Rabbi Soloveitchik between asking “why” and asking “what”.

Asking “why God gave a mitzvah  seeks to probe God’s motivation for giving the commandment. For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the question is a non starter as “why” implies a need, and God has no needs.

On the other hand, asking “what” as in “what meaning does the particular Mitzvah have for me, is a legitimate and even praiseworthy excursive. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that certain questions are legitimate. Asking, “How can I integrate and assimilate this mitzvah into my religious consciousness and outlook?”, or “what thoughts and emotions should I feel when a particular chapter is read in the synagogue?”, and “How can it help me achieve devekut, a greater closeness to God?.”  These questions are necessary if one wishes to grow religiously.

It is in this spirit that I would like to investigate a recurring phrase in this week’s Parsha. Doing so, can shed light how we go about the business of building our life and may even offer illumination on how to deal with certain societal challenges.

The second half of this week's Torah reading, parshat Emor focuses on the Moadim - the holidays.

These words with slight differences appear three times in close proximity to one another.

, מוֹעֲדֵי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר-תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ

The appointed seasons of the LORD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy gatherings…


Chapter 23 verse 2, Chapter 23 verse 4 and chapter 23, verse 37

This, in and of itself, should cause us to pay close attention to what these words are teaching. But there is more - these words appear as part of the holiday prayer when the sanctity of the day is related and they serve as a cornerstone to midrashim and halachot.

In short, this morning, we encounter what our tradition considers a religious beacon or spiritual guidepost.

Take for example the words of the Jerusalem Talmud.


אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי יְהוָה

These are the appointed seasons of the LORD

“Says the Talmud: “In the past, they were the holidays of the Lord, but from now on they are , אֲשֶׁר-תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם, בְּמוֹעֲדָם, holy gatherings, which you shall proclaim in their appointed season.

The Talmud is contending with a contradiction within the verse. It starts by calling the holidays, “appointed seasons of God”, and ends by referring to them as “gatherings which YOU shall proclaim.

“Which is it?”, wonders the Talmud. The answer: God had in mind certain holidays for certain times, but once he gave the Torah, the actual day on which the holiday falls depends completely on the Jewish people.

The message is that holiness is something that is not necessarily inherent. It has to be created.

I call this this the Yom Tov model of sanctity or holiness. In this model, action, not inaction brings holiness and wrestling is preferred over relaxing.

We can appreciate this type of holiness by contrasting it to the holiness of shabbat. First of all, shabbat is holy, whether or not we say it is. It is automatic and completely Divine. On the other hand, the sanctity of the festivals depends on human intervention.

Related to this distinction is the fact that on shabbat, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, “we mark the holiness by renouncing our own status as creators as on Shabbat all melacha meaning “creative work” is forbidden.”

On the holidays, certain work done in order to enhance the day is permitted. On shabbat we are creations, on Yom Tov we are creators, on shabbat we are passive, while on the holidays we are active.

I submit that it is the Yom Tov model that we are supposed to live with most of the time.

Here are two proofs.

First, one from the commandment to keep shabbat itself.

ז  זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ.

7 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

ח  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ.

8 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work;

ט  וְיוֹם, הַשְּׁבִיעִי--שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:  לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה כָל-מְלָאכָה

9 but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work,


We tend to focus on the part that tells us not to work on shabbat and pay less attention to the part that tells us that on the other six days we are obligated to work.

Another proof text comes from the story of the Garden of Eden.

טו  וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.

15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

טז  וַיְצַו יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר:  מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן, אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל.

16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying: 'Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat;

יז  וּמֵעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע--לֹא תֹאכַל, מִמֶּנּוּ:

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it;


We tend to lose sight of the fact that eating from ALL of the other trees in the garden was a commandment - Vayitzav - God commanded full engagement - with one small exception, highlighting that the predominant model is one of action and engagement.

Religious Zionists believe that the Yom Tov model predominates as they were not willing to “rest” and wait for God to bring about the third commonwealth. They believed it was holy work to act themselves.

The Torah attests to this as life in the desert was abnormal and completely sustained by miracles -but once the Jews entered the land of Israel - God took a step back, if you will, and let the Jewish people take care of themselves. Of course, he was never really far away, but the work of building a society and providing food and shelter was in the hands of the people. The desert  / shabbat model of inaction gives way to the Yom Tov / settlement model of action.

The deeper meaning of all of this goes far beyond the holidays. in the realm of our own lives, we must remember that holiness DOES NOT happen by itself.

Our homes will never BECOME Jewish homes - we must MAKE them Jewish homes. Our children will never BECOME devoted Jews, we must MAKE that happen by the actions we take and the example we set.

Do we daven every day and not just on shabbat, do we say brachot before and after each meal every day, not only on shabbat. Do we come to shul to daven or to stand in the back or sit with our neighbors and talk.

The opportunity we have is awesome - but it is only as awesome as we MAKE it.

On the larger societal level, we have seen in recent weeks the importance of taking action and not waiting in false hope that everything will be OK.

One example is the beating of the Ethiopian by Israeli police officers. Only now, after that horrific event and the ensuing riots is the treatment and question of social safety net for Ethiopians being addressed more seriously.

My friend and columnist Gil Troy said it well. “Our politicians should address the Ethiopian crisis as a Zionist crisis too. Let’s redirect the haredim’s billion-shekel ransom toward these hard-working, taxpaying, army-serving patriots. The Ethiopian rescue is one of the great Zionist adventures of recent times – we should make their successful adjustment one of the great Israeli success stories of all time.”

What happened is this. The government took a shabbat outlook towards that challenge - hoping that somehow the crisis would go away. While what they really needed was a Yom Tov model wherein real resources and brainpower were directed to the issue.

The consequence of taking the shabbat approach over the Yom Tov approach was disastrous - the beating was just what was needed to tip the issue.

We will not always succeed in the Yom Tov model. But consider this statement by the Rabbis.

Referring to our parsha, the Talmud states that the Torah says”Otam”, “Otam”, “Otam” - using the word “them” three times in the verses I mentioned at the outset. But, since the words are written “chaser” without the letter “vav”, the word can also be read as “atem”, you, meaning, it is up to YOU - the Jewish people to establish the days of the holidays.

This homiletic reading led Rabbi Akiva to say the following. “Atem”, Afilu Shogegin - YOU, even if you made a mistake:  “Atem”, Afilu Mutain, YOU, even if you were led astray: Atem, afilu Anusim - YOU, even if you were forced and declared the wrong day holy - it does not matter. The day is sanctified. What an incredible statement as to the power to create holiness

The Yom Tov approach is fraught with uncertainty and there are no guarantees. It is also true that even against all odds, we can do it. And, it is also true that it is our only choice.

This notion is also very much related to Shavuot which we will, with God’s help, celebrate in just 2 week. Rabbi Norman Lamm taught the following:

“In preparation for the great event of revelation or Mattan Torah at Mt. Sinai, God  commanded Moses, ve'higbalta et ha'am saviv, "and you shall set bounds unto the people round about the mountain...for who ever touches the mount shall surely be put to death” And then, in the middle of this verse we read “bimshoch HaYovel heima ya'alu ba-har, "but when the ram’s horn sounds, then they may corns up to the mountain."

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926) observed that although “whereas God is quite severe in warning the people to stay away from the mountain during the time of revelation, He rather abruptly grants permission to scale the mountain thereafter. Right in the middle of a verse, the Almighty switches from a marked prohibition to a clear permission. Why the suddenness? Why is God, as it were, so anxious to provide the heter (permission) immediately after pronouncing the issur (prohibition)?” (Rabbi Lamm)

The answer he provides to this question touches on one of the very idea of holiness that emerges from our Parsha. “It was, he says, a protest against the pagan mentality, both ancient and modern. Every religion, pagan as well as Jewish, knows of a category called "the holy," something known as kedushah or holiness. There is, however, a vast difference between how the pagan and the Jew understand and conceive of the holy. The pagan identifies it as something magical, something objective, a miraculously inherent quality. Kedushah is conceived as independent of and remote from man. To the Jew, however, kedushah is not at all absolute and magical. There is nothing in all the world that is holy in and of itself, without being made holy. Holiness comes about only when God descends to meet man and man strains to rise to meet Him. When the encounter between man and God is done, when God has withdrawn his Shekhinah or Presence, and Man has retired from the moment of spiritual elation — then kedushah vanishes.”(Rabbi Lamm) So Har Sinai, without the revelation going on, was just another mountain, reminding us that our life, can be “just another life”, unless we create holiness.

We mustn't wait in vain hope that society's ills will heal themselves, much the same as we do not wait in vain hope that our physical ailments will heal themselves. And, we must never fall into the trap of depending on the current of the community to achieve kedusha in our own lives and in the lives of our family members. Only if we adopt the Yom Tov model of “Sheshet Yamim Ta’avod” - work every day of the week - the “asher tikru OTAM” model - days that YOU must declare will we be successful in building a mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.


Thu, July 2 2020 10 Tammuz 5780