Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 2

For His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created, but what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.
שקדושת הבורא למעלה מקדושתנו, שקדושתו ית׳ היא רק לנבראים ולא לעצמו ית׳, שלא נתוסף ולא יתוסף שום יתרון להבורא על ידי מעשיו שעשה ועושה, וכל רצונו ית׳ רק להיטיב לנבראים, אבל מה שרוצה מאתנו אינו באופן זה, שהרי הורה לנו ר׳ עקיבא “חייך קודמים”, וגם רמזו לנו לפרש את המקרא, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” בדרך שלילי “מאי דעלך סני, לחברך לא תעביד”, אבל בדרך חיובי ראוי לאדם להקדים את טובת עצמו,

As Rav Shimon had just said, Hashem has no needs, and therefore his Qedushah doesn’t involve separation from needs. However, Hashem did make us needy, and therefore we must have a concept of self-interest so that we get those needs met. The separation of qedushah is not separation from self-interest, but separation from those things which distract that self from its mission.

Bestowing good on the created begins with being good to oneself. That is how one has the capacity to give. And when operating from within that context, self-interest is a positive thing.

This is why, when someone is faced with a moral dilemma where he has to choose between two lives to save, one is not obligated to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of another. The person who has the canteen in the middle of the desert doesn’t have to share the water. Rabbi Aqiva learns this from the verse “and your brother shall live with you” (Leviticus 25:36), which implies that the obligation to save another is only where he can then live “with you”.

(In an earlier blog entry, I explored how this idea would have applied in cases of the Holocaust. When Victor Frankl asserted that the Holocaust cost us our most idealistic people, that anyone who survived had to have the ability to place saving themselves and their own ahead of others, had he slipped from Jewish to Christian ethics? Was Rudolf Kasztner wrong in giving priority to getting his own friends and people in his political camp over other Jews onto his train to freedom? And I looked at R’ Tzevi Hirsch Meisels’s heart-rending words about a father whose son was one of 1,400 children placed on a train for extermination; was he permitted to risk his own life to save his son’s?)

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 1

HOWEVER, what of a person who decides to submerge his nature, to reach a high level so that he has no thought or inclination in his soul for his own good, only a desire for the good of others? In this way he would have his desire reach the sanctity of the Creator, as His Desire in all of the creation and management of the world is only for the good of the created, and not for Himself at all. At first glance one might say that if a person reached this level, he would reach the epitome of being whole. But this is why our Sages of blessed memory teach us in this Midrash that it is not so. We cannot try to be similar to His Holiness in this respect.
אמנם אם יאמר האדם להכניע את טבעו להגיע למדה יתירה עד שלא יהיה בנפשו שום מחשבה ושאיפה להיטיב לעצמו, וכל שאיפותיו יהיו רק להיטיב לאחרים, ובאופן כזה תהיה שאיפתו להגיע לקדושת הבורא ית׳, שרצונו ית׳ בכל הבריאה והנהגת העולם רק להיטיב לנבראים ולא לעצמו ית׳ כלל וכלל, שבהשקפה ראשונה היה אפשר לומר שאם יגיע אדם למדרגה זו יגיע לתכלית השלמות, ולכן הורו לנו חז״ל במדרש זה שלא כן הוא, שאין לנו להשתדל להדמות לקדושת הבורא ית׳ בצד זה,

In Chassidus, there is a central theme called bitul hayeish, abnegation of [one's own] existence. For a Lubavitch example, from the chapter titled “Bittul” in R’ Jacob Immanuel Schochet’s “The Mystical Tradition:

Yeshut, selfhood or self-assertion, is the very antithesis of the principle of yichud. It is a denial of ultimate reality vested exclusively in G-d who “fills the heaven and the earth (Jeremiah 23:24); there is no place devoid of His presence; there is none beside Him.

That is why pride and anger, arrogance and losing one’s temper, as well as not caring about others, and so forth, are tantamount to idolatry. For in all these cases man is concerned with himself, he assumes a reality for his ego. In all these cases man has become self-centered as opposed to G-d-centered, worshipping his ego instead of G-d alone. He may recognize the existence of G-d, even the supremacy of G-d, but also grants recognition to himself.

Of this self-centered person G-d says, “I and he cannot dwell together.” That person is so full of himself that in him there remains no place for G-d. Of this the Baal Shem Tov taught: Self-aggrandizement is worse than sin. For of all defilements and sins it is written, “Who dwells with them in the very midst of their impurity” (Leviticus 16:16); of the arrogant, however, it is said, “and he cannot both dwell in this world,’ as it is written, ‘I cannot tolerate him who has haughtiness and a proud heart’ (Psalms 101:5).”

Bitul Hayesh thus means total self-negation. The ego, all and any forms of selfhood, must be nullified. It has no place in the consciousness of Divine omnipresence…

While it plays a central role in Chabad, we also find bitul in Breslov. E.g. in Liqutei Moharan 1:52, Rav Nachman describes their central practice of hisbodedus (time alone, preferably in a natural setting, with one’s Creator and one’s thoughts) in terms of such bitul. And in “Dear Rabbi, Dear Doctor” (pg 200), Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski contrasts the roles of psychology’s notion of self-affirmation with what he describes as mussar‘s recommendation of bitul, defined as self-effacement. R’ Dr Twerski is clearly speaking about the lower-case-m mussar, the self-work, involved in his own mesorah of Chassidus than the capital-M Mussar, the thought of the movement launched by Rav Yisrael Salanter. In Chassidus, bitul hayeish means getting one’s Selfhood out of the way and thereby becoming a conduit for Hashem.

Rav Shimon here explicitly denies this approach. He takes the medrash‘s words “קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם’ — My Sanctity is higher than yours” to show that while Hashem has no needs, we do. Hashem doesn’t engage in separation (perishus), because He has nothing to separate from. Our holiness is thus preforce different than His. One is in the “image” of G-d by being a committed to Hashem’s goal of bestowing good to others, but as an active partner, not a passive conduit. Selfhood isn’t to be eliminated of minimized. This position comes from the same general stream of Jewish Thought as the Alter of Slabodka’s, who founded a school of Mussar on the notion of Gadlus haAdam — the greatness of man, both in terms of myself, and in how I perceive the people I interact with.

As we shall see, this introduction will take us to lovingkindness by building on, rather than negating, selfhood.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – Conclusion

In this way, the concept of separation is a consequence of the underlying basis of the mitzvah of holiness, which is recognizable in practice in the ways a person acts. But with insight and the calling of spirituality this mitzvah broadens to include everything a person causes or does even between him and the Omnipresent. In relation to this, this holiness is comparable to the Holiness of the Creator in whatever little similarity. Just as the Act of the Holy One in all of creation, and in each and every moment that He continues to cause the universe to exist; all His actions are sanctified to the good of others, so too it is His Will that our actions be constantly sanctified to the good of the community, and not personal benefit.
ועל פי דרך זה ענין מצוה של פרישות הוא תמצית מיסוד מצות קדושה, הנכרת בפועל בדרכי ההנהגה של האדם, אבל ברעיון ושאיפת הרוח מתרחבת מצוד, זו גם על כל מפעליו ומעשיו של האדם גם בינו לבין המקום, וביחס זה מתדמה ענין קדושה זו לקדושת הבורא ית׳ באיזה דמיון קצת, שכמו שבמעשה של הקב״ה בהבריאה כולה, וכן בכל רגע ורגע שהוא מקיים את העולם, כל מעשיו הם מוקדשים לטובת זולתו, כן רצונו ית׳ שיהיו מעשינו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל ולא להנאת עצמו.

Rav Shimon opened this introduction telling us that our greatest desire should be “להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול — do to good to others, to the individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were).” What does commitment to doing good for others in the future add over speaking about the present? When we actually get to the point where we can do good to others, it will be because the moment is no longer in the future and became the present?

There is Aesop’s famous fable of The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs. Here is the short version from  Joseph Jacobs’ Aesop’s Fables (1894) :

One day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing.

Greed oft o’er reaches itself.

Self-help gurus discuss the need to balance production and production capacity. If you try too hard to produce in the present, you can destroy your capacity to produce and thus future production — and thus produce less overall. Killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

This is no less true when what we are trying to produce is good for others. Therefore, considerations about how we will give to others in the future does effect how I act today. And at times that will mean caring for my own development.

In order to participate in bestowing Hashem’s good on others, there are three steps involved:

  1. Internalizing the definition of good. In order to really be good to others, I need to connect to the Almighty and thus to His Good.
  2. I need to refine myself, so that I minimize the role of error and self-deception.
  3. Only then can I fully give what is truly good.

The capacity to produce thus requires a healthy relationship with the Creator and constant attention to self-refinement.

If this is also the attitude one takes to luxury, relaxation and rest, then it too is dedicated to Hashem’s goal for Creation. Or saying the same thing in other words — it too is holy. Enjoying a good steak is holy if one is doing so in order to keep away the doldrums that would make one a less effective giver. (And more directly so if it’s part of a family setting or communal celebration, so that one is sharing happiness and thus increasing the joy of others.)

This is why Rav Shimon expended time explaining that holiness is commitment, which only as a side effect means separation from extraneous purposes. He is saying that the Ramban’s “sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” doesn’t mean austerity for its own sake, and can even indeed involve choosing to use the enjoyable and permitted for holy purposes. As long as the pursuit doesn’t become an extraneous end in itself.

Just as Hashem is perpetually sustaining me, I must perpetually be motivated by a desire to help others.

Next, Rav Shimon Shkop will explore the question of Self-Interest. If in it lies the dangers of distraction from our mission in life, why did Hashem make it?

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 5

And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose…
לכן נראה לפי עניות דעתי, שבמצוה זו כלול כל יסוד ושורש מגמת תכלית חיינו, שיהיו כל עבודתנו ועמלנו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל, שלא נשתמש בשום מעשה ותנועה, הנאה ותענוג שלא יהיה בזה איזה ענין לטובת זולתנו, וכמובן בכל הקדשות שהוא התיחדות למטרה נכבדה,

So, we well established that qedushah isn’t inherent in the concept of separation, but in being separated for an honorable goal. Whether that’s when the groom declares that his bride is “hereby mequdeshes to me” or when the kohein‘s tzitz adjures all those around him to be “qadosh Lashem“. Much rides in the preposition, “le-” (to) and what the separation is for.

לטובת זולתנו — for the good of others!

Continuing with the haqdamah:

… which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but to no one else does it have any value.
והנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל, אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו, אבל אם הוא נהנה הנאה מן סוג המותריות, שאינן דרושות להבראת גופו ונפשו, הנאה זו היא נגד הקדושה, שבזה הוא מטיב לעצמו לרגע לפי דמיונו, ולזולתו אין שום תועלת.

Rather than qedushah being separation from rest, relaxation or luxury, Rav Shimon shows a way to sanctify these personal pleasures. If someone’s life is committed to doing good for others, and these joys are taken for the sake of being able to continue giving, without exhaustion (physical or mental), burnout, losing one’s patience with the recipient, etc… then they too are qadosh.


(Have people noticed the pattern that this material under the line are my “riffs” on Rav Shimon’s themes?)

It says in Shema (Devarim 6:5)

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ.

You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.

To which the Sifri comments (famously quoted by Rashi):

בשני יצריך. ד”א: “בכל לבבך” — שלא יהיה לבך חלוק על המקום

With both your inclinations [yeitzer hara and yeitzer hatov].
Another idea: “With all your heart” — that your heart should not be divided about the Omnipresent.

In general, the two-veislevavekha” [your heart] emphasizes the heart’s conflicted, dialectic and ambivalent nature. The synonym “libekha“, with one veis, is used when we aren’t speaking of internal conflict. Thus, the Sifri’s interpretations are compelled by the wording, “all of your levav“.

Ideally, all of a person’s actions are “להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול — to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were)”, as Rav Shimon wrote earlier.

Satisfying one’s desires, even when within the black-letter aspect of halakhah, still violates the law. It is being “despicable with the permission of the Torah”, as the Ramban puts it, and so we are called by the Sifra to “sanctify yourself with what is permitted to you.”

How does one serve Hashem even with one’s yeitzer hara? When one satistfies one’s desires solely to be more capable of doing good for others in the future. That is living with an undivided heart, in imitation of the Unity of the Creator.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 4

2- It is more difficult to understand “My sanctity is higher than yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand – in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Holiness], except that His Holiness is more general and inclusive. If we say that the essential idea of the holiness He demands of us (in this mitzvah of “be holy”) is distance from the permissible, that kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.
וביותר קשה להבין מה שמסיק “קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”, דבמובן זה עלינו להבין, דבאמת יש דמיון בהקדושה שה׳ דורש מאתנו לקדושתו ית׳, אלא שקדושתו יותר כוללת ומקפת, ואם נאמר דעיקד מובן הקדושה, שה׳ דורש מאתנו במצוה זו של “קדושים תהיו” להתרחק מן המותרות, קדושה זו אינה מתיחסת כלל לה׳ ית׳.

Rav Shimon is raising objections to the naive understanding that the Sifra and the Ramban are defining holiness as separation. His first objection was that the pasuq in question continues, “ki qadosh Ani — for I am holy” and G-d’s sanctity could not possibly involve separation.

Here Rav Shimon Shkop furthers the question by discussing the next part of the medrash. We are supposed to be holy in imitation of HQBH (“for I am holy”) and yet as the Sifra emphasizes, “My sanctity is higher than yours.” G-d’s sanctity is more general and inclusive, ours a mere shadow. So, if the separation from the permissible, austerity and asceticism, were actually the definition of the qedushah we strive for, then G-d’s sanctity would necessarily not only involve separation, but be an absolute and total separation.

Rav Shim’on’s point is also implied in the Ramban’s wording. The medrash says “קדושים תהיו – פרושים תהיו — ‘be holy’ – separate yourselves”. Had the Ramban thought this was a definition, he would not have used the word qodesh; a definition that includes the word you are trying to explain is worthless. And yet the Ramban does so, when he includes a quote of the gemara’s comment on this verse “קדש את עצמך במותר לך — sanctify yourself with that which is permissable to you.

So, the Sifra is telling us that in order to be holy, we much separate from something. But holiness isn’t the separation itself. Next Rav Shim’on will relate this idea back to his definition of qedushah, that it is commitment to Hashem’s goal of bestowing His good on others.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 3

According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible.1- What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is higher than yours.”
ועל פי זה לכאורה דברי המדרש אינם מובנים, איך שייך בענין פרישות להתדמות להקב״ה שעל זה השמיענו הכתוב שלא כן רצונו ית׳, שהרי אומר “יכול כמוני? תלמוד לאמר ‘כי קדוש אני’, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”,

Rav Shimon’s defense of the notion that holiness is a stance of action, in light of a medrash in the Sifra which, as the Ramban puts it, says that “be holy” entails “separation from things that are permitted to you” opens with two questions that show the medrash and Ramban cannot be taken at face value.

First, the concept of separation has nothing to do with the Almighty.

Speaking from a theological perspective for a moment, if Hashem separated Himself from something, would that thing continue to exist? For that matter, would the time itself in which He is supposedly separate from it exist either?

As we saw, the issue of commitment is inherently different when it comes to people as when it comes to Hashem yisbarakh. Hashem is One. He has One Will, One Goal, and thus one Purpose that He is thus fully committed to.

Not only doesn’t Hashem have other side-interests, He does not even separate from those things people do that are at odds with His goal. In Tomer Devorah ch. 1, Rav Moshe Cordevero explains the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy as described in Mikhah 7:17-20. On the first middah, “מי א-ל כמוך — Who is a G-d like You”, he writes (tr unknown):

This refers to the Holy One, Blessed is He, as a patient King Who bears insult in a manner that is above human understanding. For behold, without doubt, there is nothing hidden from His providence. Furthermore, there is no moment when man is not nourished and does not exist by virtue of the divine power which flows down upon him. It follows that no man ever sins against God without the divine affluence pouring into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. But the Holy One, Blessed is He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffer it. Nor must you say that He cannot withhold that good, God forfend, for it lies in His power in the moment it takes to say the word ‘moment’ to wither the sinner’s hand or foot, as he did to Jeroboam (Melachim I 8:4). And yet though it lies in His power to arrest divine flow – and He might have said: ‘If you sin against Me do so under your own power, not with Mine’ – He does not, on this account, withold His goodness from man, bearing the insult, pouring out His power and bestowing of His goodness. This is to be insulted and bear the insult, beyond words….
מורה על היות הקב”ה מלך נעלב, סובל עלבון מה שלא יכילהו רעיון. הרי אין דבר נסתר מהשגחתו בלי ספק, ועוד אין רגע שלא יהיה האדם נזון ומתקיים מכח עליון השופע עליו, והרי תמצא שמעולם לא חטא אדם נגדו שלא יהיה הוא באותו הרגע ממש שופע שפע קיומו ותנועת אבריו, עם היות שהאדם חוטא בכח ההוא לא מנעו ממנו כלל אלא סובל הקב”ה עלבון כזה להיות משפיע בו כח תנועות אבריו, והוא מוציא אותו כח באותו רגע בחטא ועון ומכעיס והקב”ה סובל. ולא תאמר שאינו יכול למנוע ממנו הטוב ההוא ח”ו שהרי בכחו ברגע כמימרא ליבש ידיו ורגליו כעין שעשה לירבעם, ועכ”ז שהכח בידו להחזיר הכח הנשפע ההוא והיה לו לומר כיון שאתה חוטא נגדי תחטא בשלך לא בשלי, לא מפני זה מנע טובו מן האדם אלא סבל עלבון, והשפיע הכח והטיב לאדם טובו. הרי זה עלבון וסבלנות מה שלא יסופר…

Divine Compassion includes giving us the free will to use the very existence and power Hashem bestows upon us in rebellion against him, and yet Hashem continues to it grant us. There truly is no concept of separation — not even from our ulterior aims — with regard to Hashem.

In contrast, within the human condition, a conflict of motivations is not only possible, but a constant. Until Bereishis 1:4, “וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱ-לֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ — and G-d separated between the light and the darkness”, Chazal say that until then “אור וחשך משתמשין בערבוביא — light and darkness were used in a mixture” (c.f. Rashi ad loc.) Humanity then violates this separation, when Chavah and Adam ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night — light and darkness overlap. The fruit was of the “עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע — tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Bereishis 2:9) Not knowledge of good and of evil, but thought that was good-and-evil, mixed. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”

His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?

The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.

Irbuvia. A constant mixture of emotions. No good deed lacks some selfish side-motivation, no matter how small. Which is why many shuls require appeals to publicly announce donations in order to raise enough money to operate. The question is how to separate out the holy and the ideal among our motives rather than be moved by a mixture of good and evil.

So, a medrash addressing the words in the Torah, “be holy for I am Holy” can’t be saying that holiness itself is defined by separation. That explanation fails on the second clause — Hashem needs no such separation, and never does indeed separate. Rather, Rav Shimon will explain, it is giving separation as the means by which implement the mitzvah.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 2

And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.
וביסוד מצוה זו של קדושה איתא בתורת כהנים: “‘קדושים תהיו’ – פרושים תהיו” ,והרמב״ן ז״ל בפירושו על התורה האריך לבאר ענין פרישות האמור במצוה זו שהוא להתרחק מן הנאות ותענוגים יתירים, אף על פי שהם מעשים שאינן אסורים לנו, ובציור מבליט אומר שאפשר לאדם להיות נבל ברשות התורה ועין שם בדבריו הקדושים

Rav Shimon Shkop defined qedushah in terms of commitment to the cause of providing good to others. So he has to address this medrash (Toras Kohanim, a/k/a the Sifra, which predates the mishnah) that appears to be defining the mitzvah of being holy as separation. In particular, the Ramban’s (much quoted) further explanation, that this is separation is from things which are permitted by the black-letter of the law, but are still disgusting or self-belittling behaviors.

Even if we find a way to say that both definitions boil down to the same thing, there is a fundamental difference in attitude between the formulations, one that would lead to differences in action:

The Sifra could be taken to mean that holiness inheres in withdrawal from the pleasures of this world, that it’s associated with austerity and asceticism.

Rav Shimon is drawing a picture of holiness that is in action, not in cloistered retreat. It is in elevating the lot of others, not an other-worldly lifestyle.

The rest of this section is dedicated to showing how his conclusion is actually the more correct understanding of the verse and medrash.

Just One Small Cry

I had the severely painful experience this past Sunday of attending the levayah for a six year old boy r”l. Reuven Dovida”h went for a walk with his father R’ Yehuda Herbst and R’ Dovid Reichenberga”h shortly after Hurricane Irene. He touched a fence that was electrified by a downed power line, burning himself and his father. R’ Dovid Reichenberg died trying to save the boy. Reuven Dovid himself lived nearly two more weeks, passing away shortly before Shabbos.  Because of those two weeks of mental preparation for the event, R’ Yehuda Herbst was capable of giving an intelligible hesped for his little boy. One thought that was both beautiful and not too heartbreaking for me to share bears repeating.

For two weeks, little Reuven Dovid was kept alive by machines. But the doctors soon gave up hope. Their efforts were palliative, rather than trying to rescue the boy. Rabbi Herbst, as a man of trust in the Almighty wasn’t ready to give up hope, and tried pressing them to try harder, despite their assurances that there was nothing left to be done. At one point the doctor told him, “If the boy would give just one small cry, some sign that there is activity in the brain, we would do everything in our power to try to save him. But without any activity in the brain, there is nothing to do.”

It struck R’ Herbst how much this is a metaphor for Elul.

Hashem would do anything (short of tampering with our free will and individuality) to save us. But He is waiting: Is the soul still alive; does the person still have spiritual function? All Hashem needs is just one small cry, one small step taken by the person himself, and the Almighty will rush in and help with the rest.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 1

In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” The Midrash (Leviticus, Emor, ch. 24) says about this verse: “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘for I am Holy’ to teach that My Sanctity is above yours.”
ולדעתי כל ענין זה נכלל במצות ה׳ של “קדושים תהיו”, דהנה במדרש ויקרא פרק כ״ד אמור על מקרא זה: “יכול כמוני? תלמוד לאמר ‘כי קדוש אני’, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”,

Rav Shimon already wrote that our job is to bestow good on others, in imitation of the purpose of creation, and used the term qedushah to refer to the commitment of our abilities to that goal.

Here R’ Shimon adds that what we call “commitment” with respect to people is different in kind that Hashem’s commitment. Hashem is absolutely One. He has only One Goal. Purity of purpose is inherent.

For people, our natural state is to be in a swirl of motivations, “tov vara be’irbuvya – good and evil in mixture”. Perfect purity of purpose is an unreachable goal to continually strive strive for.

Thus, Hashem adds “for I am Holy” — that His Sanctity is above ours.

(See also the connection between the sin of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and this element of the human condition I drew in my earlier post “The origins of imperfection“.)

Portraits in Holiness

We will soon get to Rav Shim’on Shkop’s explanation of the mitzvah “qedoshim tihyu – and you shall be holy.”

נלענ׳׳ד, שבמצוה זו כלול כל יסוד ושורש מגמת תכלית חיינו, שיהיו כל עבודתנו ועמלנו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל, שלא נשתמש בשום מעשה ותנועה, הנאה ותענוג שלא יהיה בזה איזה ענין לטובת זולתנ…

It appears according to my limited knowledge, that this mitzvah includes every foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another….

In light of this sentiment, here are two stories of holy people.

Sargent Michael Ryan of the NYPD was off the day of Sept 11, 2001. When he learned of the attacks, he went in to the 144th Pct and took the detectives he supervised to downtown Manhattan. They assisted in the evacuation of the area, and directing walkers across the Brooklyn Bridge. (Who knows? Maybe I was one of those he directed to the FDR Drive…)

The next day he started work at the morgue, and later he was assigned to sifting through debris from the World Trade Center site collected at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Often working 12 hour shifts, he never complained, knowing how desperately people were waiting for news of loved ones, so that they can finally bury their relative and friend and get further along in their mourning and healing.

In May of 2006, Sgt Michael Ryan sought medical attention for a persistent sore throat ailment. The physician prescribed an antibiotic, assuming a simple infection was the cause. Two weeks later a large lump formed on Michael’s neck, and a few weeks later, a large growth appeared in his armpit. Sargent Ryan was eventually diagnosed with three different forms of non-Hotchkins lymphoma, later reclassified as a single rare form of lymphoma which showed a complex picture to the microscope — mixed B & T cell, mixed small & large celled indolent (ie slow-growing but also harder to kill) lymphoma

On November 5th, 2007, Sargent Michael Ryan lost his battle with cancer. He was 41 years old. He left behind his parents, Jim and Ann; wife Eileen, sons Liam and Aiden, and daughters Erin and Casey.

A two and a half weeks later, November 24th, 2007, the fire department lost one of NY’s Bravest — also to lymphoma. EMS Lieutenant Brian Ellicott was also close to Sgt Ryan in age — 45 rather than 41.

On 9/11, Lt Ellicott arrived at the World Trade Center site that night, and put in over 100 hours work sifting through debris looking for survivors. His EMS partner, Edward Cosenza, told reporters “Brian would always say, ‘this is my job, this is what I do.’ This man was a true hero, and he lost his life doing his job and serving his city.” The dust got in his lungs and gave him a hacking cough, but he kept on working.

Brian Ellicott was a loving father, who shared his love of science fiction and fantasy with his children.

Both died of the same very rare form of lymphoma. After over 8 years of remission (barukh Hashem ubeli ayin hara) after my own bout with this obscure lympoma, it’s natural for me to empathize with the people they left behind. It would seem 9/11’s death toll is still climbing.

Why did I survive and they didn’t? They were their doing G-d’s work, whereas I was just caught at my desk putting in a day at an investment bank job. Can we speak of inspirational stories of how Hashem watches over us? And yet, He clearly did.

The Almighty made me with only a sliver of bone in my pinky toe.

On October 15th, 2003, I was laid off from that job at the investment bank. A few nights later, my daughter plunked herself down on my bed — landing on my foot. I was in a lot of pain. In fact, a couple of hours later, the pain was so consuming, I hopped a block away to the ER to get that toe taped. While talking to the doctor, I asked about the swollen gland that didn’t seem to be going away. She felt it, said it wasn’t really an ER issue. I should see a doctor. Tomorrow.

So, six days after losing my job, I found out I had cancer.

But because the Creator made me with that deformed bone, my toe broke easily, and I got the medical attention I was stalling on. It was caught in Stage I, meaning, before it spread beyond that first lymph node. Had I not been caught that early — who knows?

And so, I think of those two families who G-d chose not to save such pain with much sympathy. Those who lost out because they loved someone kind and generous, men whose “greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator.”