An amazing, wonderful and fundamental Tanchuma

H/T RYGB, who posted this Tanchuma under the same title (“An amazing, …”). I would like to add translation. Medrash Tanchuma, Tzav (#3 in Warsaw ed., #5 in Buber ed.):

This is the Torah of the praise-of-peace [offerings]…” (Vayiqra 7:11) This is what is written “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” (Mishlei 3:17). Everything that is written in the Torah is written for the sake of peace. Even though things about wars are written in the Torah, they were written for the sake of peace.

You find that the Holy One, blessed be He, annulled the decree for the sake of peace. When was this? When the Holy One told Moshe, “When you lay siege on a  city many days…” (Devarim 20:19) and that whole topic, Hashem said that you should destroy them, as it says “When you utterly destroy them” (v. 17)  But Moshe didn’t do this. Rather he said, “Now I will go and attack? I do not know who sinned and who did not sin! Rather, I will come to them in peace.” As it says, “And I will send messengers from the Qedeimos wilderness… words of peace, saying…” (Devarim 2:26) Once he saw that he didn’t come in peace, he attacked him. As it says, “And they struck him and his sons and his whole nation.” The Holy One said to him, “I said ‘If you lay siege…’ and you come to them in peace?! By your life! Just as you said, so shall I do.” As it says, “When you approach a city to wage war on it, you shall call out to it for peace.” (Devarim 20:10).

Therefore it says , “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”

וזאת תורת זבח השלמים” (ויקרא ז:יא). זש”ה “דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום” (משלי ג:יז), כל מה שכתוב בתורה, לשום שלום הוא נכתב. אעפ”י שכתוב בתורה מלחמות, לשם שלום נכתבו. את מוצא שביטל הקב”ה את הגזירה מפני השלום. אימתי? כשאמר הקב”ה למשה, “כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים” וגו’ (דברים כ:יט), וכל אותו הענין, א”ל הקב”ה שיהא מחרים אותם, שנאמר “כי החרם תחרימם” (דברים כ:יז). ומשה לא עשה כן, אלא אמר עכשיו אני הולך ומכה, איני יודע מי חטא ומי לא חטא, אלא בשלום אבוא עליהם, שנאמר “ואשלח מלאכים ממדבר קדמות וגו’ דברי שלום לאמר” (דברים ב:כו), כיון שראה שלא בא בשלום הכה אותו, שנאמר “ויכו אותו ואת בניו ואת כל עמו” (במדבר כא:לה), אמר לו הקב”ה אני אמרתי “כי החרם תחרימם” וגו’, ואתה באתה עליהם בשלום?! חייך כשם שאמרת כך אני אעשה, שנאמר “כי תקרב אל עיר להלחם עליה וקראת אליה לשלום” (דברים כ:י), לכך נאמר “דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום.”

What’s the rush?

דְּבַשׁ מָצָאתָ אֱכֹל דַּיֶּךָּ פֶּן תִּשְׂבָּעֶנּוּ וַהֲקֵאתוֹ.

If you find honey, eat just enough; lest you get full and vomit it.

- Mishlei 25:16

(In the days of the geonim and earlier rishonim it was customary to start a derashah with a verse from Mishlei and then use its explanation to conclude with an explanation of something from the parashah. I’m happy to have once found a way to work within that structure.)

Mishlei is a collection of metaphors, as the name of the book itself is “The Parables of [Shelomo ben David, king of Israel.]” (1:1) In this vein, the Vilna Gaon explains our opening verse based on the notion that “devash” here is meant as an acronym of “de’iah, binah, seikhel – theoretical knowledge, reason, applying the knowledge”, to use the translations he gives in the introduction to the work.

Sidenote: This is the same triad found in Nusach Ashkenaz’s version of birkhas Da’as (the fourth berakhah of the Amidah, “Atah chonein…”)  but with a different conjugation: “dei’ah, binah, haskeil.” Perhaps because asking Hashem for help turning what we know into practice would be asking for Him to violate free will, so we instead ask to provide us with more skill at doing so, rather than help in the actual doing.

But intellect and spirituality are good things, so what would it mean to say “if you gain knowledge and the wherewithall to use it, apply just enough; lest you get full and vomit it”?

In Aesop’s “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs”, he writes (tr. Harvard Classics 1909 ed.):

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’ERREACHES ITSELF.”

In “real life” we have to balance our production with our capacity to produce. If we are overly short-sighted in our pursuit of immediate gains and accomplishments, we can kill the goose, and end up accomplishing less in our lives overall.

In the context of religious worship, this is the need to both perform mitzvos, and to develop within our selves the abilities necessary to do future mitzvos (including rest as needed), and the middos to make the right choices when opportunities arrive. As R’ Shimon writes (tr. mine):

וכמובן בכל הקדשות שהוא התיחדות למטרה נכבדה, 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.

And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – 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.

And similarly the Gra says that Shelomo haMelekh is warning us not to try to exceed our grasp. That by trying for more da’as, binah and haskeil then one is ready for, one can end up burning out. (Sorry for what will be in retrospect a poor turn of phrase; check back when you get to the end of this post.)

Many of us have encountered the baal teshuvah who tries to take on too much too soon, and after a short while gives up on the whole enterprise. Or have ourselves set overly high expectations during the High Holidays, and all the resolutions unravel in the days (or day) after Yom Kippur — leaving us with no change.

Now to turn to the parashah… When one looks at Chazal and rishonim explaining the magnitude of Nadav and Avihu’s sin, to find why it was so grievous as to warrant their death, one finds numerous different suggestions. As I wrote last 10 Av in the post “No Answers“:

Eight different answers…, each made with the claim that it’s the sole reason for the destruction of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Jack Love, a rebbe-chaveir, would point to this very variety of answers, or of identification of the specific sin committed by Nadav and Avihu to warrant their death, or what Moshe did wrong when he struck the rock. The gemara is making a statement. This kind of question has no final answer. The gemara grapples with the problem, but doesn’t claim to have a final answer.

So then why ask the question, if we know it’s unanswerable?

Knowing there is no conclusive answer to finding the cause, and they would never even succeed to find a cause, they still needed to struggle with the question of causes in order to find motivations to change. And by framing the problem in terms of that sin, they inspire their students to repair it.

In that spirit, I would like to take a lesson by combining some of the statements Rashi quotes from the medrash as well as an idea from the Seforno on the sin of Nadav and Avihu.

Let’s assume that the opinion that says that it was Nadav and Avihu about whom Hashem said “biqrovai aqadeish — through those close to Me I will be stanctified” (Vayiqra 10:3) is consistent with the one that says that at Har Sinai Nadav said to Avihu, “When these elders [Moshe and Aharon] die, you and I will lead the generation.” It would mean that they had the purest motives in wanting to lead. Not out of a desire for personal importance, but out of an awareness that they are indeed close to Him and thus — in their opinion — make good leaders.

But they were impatient. And when bringing the qetores they decided how it should be done on their own rather than asking Moshe Rabbeinu. Without explicit permission (which is the point of today’s semichah), it is prohibited for a student to rule on a halachic matter when in the same region — even when the student reaches the same answer.

Another way in which they jumped the gun is the opinion that the qetores was in error because it was the kohein gadol‘s job. Not only did they presume on Moshe Rabbeinu’s role before their apprenticeship under him was complete, they did the same with Aharon’s.

An improper qetores caused the death of many kohanim gedolim during the second Beis haMiqdash. The Yerushalmi (Yuma 1:5, vilna daf 7b) contrasts those who punished with death by omitting one of the ingredients of the qetores with those who die by entering the holy of holies without adding a smoke-generating agent to the qetores or lights it outside. “That is a punishment… and that is a warning.” In the latter case, the death isn’t as much a punishment as the consequence of exposure to Hashem’s Presence without the obscuring cloud. Trying to get more spirituality than one is ready for.

The elders were criticized for drinking and celebrating at Mount Sinai (Shemos 24:11). Nadav and Avihu repeat this mistake now — the gemara suggests that their sin here was in serving while inebriated. The pursuit of true spirituality takes years of development, but using drink and parties to create a shallower but immediate experience is a common shortcut.

The Ramchal writes (Mesilas Yesharim ch. 4):

לשלמי הדעת, תהיה להם ההערה במה שיתברר להם כי רק השלימות הוא הדבר הראוי שיחמד מהם ולא זולת זה, ושאין רע גדול מחסרון השלמות וההרחקה ממנו. כי הנה אחר שיתבאר זה אצלם ויתבאר להם כמו כן היות האמצעים אליו המעשים הטובים והמדות הטובות, ודאי הוא שלא יתרצו מעולם להמעיט מאלה האמצעים או להקל בהם.

To those who are complete in knowledge [or, as per the Gra: abstract knowledge in particular?], will have the insight that will clarify for them that only Wholeness and nothing else is worthy of their desire and that there is no worse evil than the lack of and removal from perfection.

And yet a little later he writes:

וזה כי זה פשוט אצל כל בעל דעת, שאין המדריגות מתחלקות בעולם האמיתי שהוא העולם הבא, אלא לפי המעשים.

And this is simple to anyone with any knowledge that there only distinction in levels in the World of Truth which is the World to Come is according to actions.

Is it in the completion, or in the deed? I believe the reason for the Ramchal’s wording is exactly the lesson that Nadav and Avihu lacked. They were “those closest to Me” not because they were on a higher plane than Moshe and Aharon, but because they were processing the most. And similarly, someone born with a calmer disposition isn’t more whole who has more of a temper if that anger is still less than what he was born with. Wholeness is according to one’s actions, how much one has developed Himself, and not on an absoute standard. Thus a person’s actions, which anyone with intellect could prize, really is the wholeness that the more complete person values.

Nadav and Avihu, like the Boesian kohanim gedolim, exposed themselves to more of G-d than they had prepared themselves for. And so they died as a punishment — they remained biqrovai (those close to Me), but as a consequence.

In a generation slated to spend 40 years in the desert in a process that would get us ready for Eretz Yisrael, they couldn’t have leadership who wanted holiness now, rather than valuing the process. Nadav and Avihu could not be Moshe’s and Aharon’s successors.

Vayiqra 2

A second thought on the first / title word of parashas Vayiqra…


וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.

And He called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Ohel Moeid, saying.

- Vayiqra 1:1

 

“וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה” – (יומא ד’ ת”כ) הקול הולך ומגיע לאזניו וכל ישראל לא שומעין יכול אף להפסקות היתה קריאה ת”ל וידבר לדבור היתה קריאה ולא להפסקות ומה היו הפסקות משמשות ליתן ריוח למשה להתבונן בין פרשה לפרשה ובין ענין לענין ק”ו להדיוט הלומד מן ההדיוט

“And He called to Moshe”: The voice went and reached his ears, and all [the rest] of Israel didn’t hear.

[You] could [have thought] that even for the pauses there was a calling. Therefore it says “vayidaber — spoke”. For speech there was a calling, but not for the pauses.

And what [purpose] did the pauses serve? To give Moshe time to contemplate between parashah [paragraph] and parashah and between topic and topic. All the more so [they are necessary] for a normal person learning from a[nother] normal person.

- Rashi ad loc, quoting Tr. Yuma

Notice that our sages’  default assumption is that the pause between topics, that whitespace between paragraphs of the chumash, would be that G-d would call Moshe when it was time to review, contemplate and work out the material He already taught, just as He did for the teaching itself.

Why?

Rav Reueven Leuchter, opens his series on Concentration (first va’ad) contrasting between using the mind to problem-solve, and using the mind to create and refine an idea. People think of thinking in terms of knowing how to solve problems. But an idiot savant can solve math problems well beyond the reach of normal people. Problem solving isn’t a measure of being an ideal human being. Where the mind is spiritual is in its ability to hold and create intangible entities, ideas.

Picture it as circling the idea, seeing it from every angle. For example (his example), assuming you’re exploring the verse, “Da lifnei Mi atah omeid — Know before Whom you stand.” Turn it around…. “DA lifnei Mi atah omeiad. Da LIFNEI Mi atah omeid… Know before WHOM you stand. Know before Whom YOU stand. Know before Whom you STAND.”

Polish each facet of the idea to a good shine. Make the idea real, massive. (Mass: someone who is contemplating a weighty thought can’t simply be pushed aside by the allure of a shiny object or other distraction around him.) Make it a fine brick in a palace you build in your mind. A piece of a whole world of spirituality.

I would like to suggest that Chazal assumed that the pauses would require Hashem’s calling because this kind of creating has such holiness. But instead the pasuq tells us to dismiss the idea. The beauty of each “stone” of the palace within the soul is very much that it is our creation, not gifted from the Almighty.

Vayiqra 1

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.

And He called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Ohel Moeid, saying.

- Vayiqra 1:1

“וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה” – לכל דברות ולכל אמירות ולכל צוויים קדמה קריאה לשון חבה (יומא ד:ויקרא רבה) לשון שמלאכי השרת משתמשים בו שנאמר (ישעי’ ו, ב) וקרא זה אל זה, אבל לנביאי האומות אומות העולם נגלה עליהן בלשון עראי וטומאה שנאמר ויקר א-לקים אל בלעם:

“And He called [vayiqra] to Moshe”: For all the declarations, statements and commandments, calling preceded them — a language of affection. (Yuma 4b; Vayiqra Rabbah). The language that angels use, as it says (Isaiah 6:2, [quoted in Qedushah]), “And they call, this one to that…”

But to the prophets of the nations of the world, He revealed to them in a language of transitoriness and impurity, as it says, “And G-d happened [vayiqar] upon Bil’am…”

- Rashi ad loc

אל”ף דויקרא זעירא. שמשה היה גדול ועניו לא רצה לכתוב אלא “ויקר” לשון מקרה כאילו לא דבר הקב”ה עמו אלא בחלום כדרך שנאמר בבלעם (במדבר כג:ד) כאילו לא נראה לו השם אלא במקרה (מדרש אותיות קטנות), ואמר לו הקב”ה לכתוב גם האל”ף ושוב אמר לו משה מחמת רוב ענוה שלא יכתבנה אלא קטנה יותר משאר אלפי”ן שבתורה וכתבה קטנה:

The alef of [the word] “vayiqra” is small. For Moshe was a great person and modest, and only wanted to write “vayiqar“, a term of happenstance [miqreh]. As though HQBH only spoke to him in a dream, as it says of Bil’am, as though Hashem only appeared to him by chance. (Midrash Osios Qetanos).

HQBH told him to write also the alef, and again Moshe told Him, because of his great modesty, that he would only write it smaller than other alef‘s in the Torah. And he wrote it in small.

- Ba’al haTurim ad loc

The book of Vayiqra opens with a contrast between “vayiqra“, being called by G-d, and “vayiqar“, serendipity. The Medrash Osios Qetanos, quoted by the Ba’al haTurim, says that this is the reason for the small alef — Hashem wanted to emphasize His closeness to Moshe, while Moshe had a hard time writing such a thing, and wanted instead to make the verse and the prophecy look more like happenstance than like a special relationship.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks enhances this contrast in a recent mailing, by noting one of the key words in the Tokhachah (chapter of rebuke) near the end of the book of Vayiqra. Hashem writes that if even after feeling the negative consequences of our actions we continue to act with Him in qeri, He will respond to us with qeri. Many translations are offered for the word “qeri“, and as for connotation — the word also denotes impure sexual emissions. But among them, the Rambam ties it to miqra, happenstance, and therefore would translate these lines something like this:

כא וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי, וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי–וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה, שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם. … כג וְאִם-בְּאֵלֶּה–לֹא תִוָּסְרוּ, לִי; וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי, קֶרִי. כד וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף-אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם, בְּקֶרִי; וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם גַּם-אָנִי, שֶׁבַע עַל-חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם. … כז וְאִם-בְּזֹאת–לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ, לִי; וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי, בְּקֶרִי. כח וְהָלַכְתִּי עִמָּכֶם, בַּחֲמַת-קֶרִי; וְיִסַּרְתִּי אֶתְכֶם אַף-אָנִי, שֶׁבַע עַל-חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם. … מ וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת-עֲו‍ֹנָם וְאֶת-עֲו‍ֹן אֲבֹתָם, בְּמַעֲלָם אֲשֶׁר מָעֲלוּ-בִי, וְאַף, אֲשֶׁר-הָלְכוּ עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי. מא אַף-אֲנִי, אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם, בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם; אוֹ-אָז יִכָּנַע, לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל, וְאָז, יִרְצוּ אֶת-עֲו‍ֹנָם.

21 And if you walk with Me randomly, and do not come to listen to Me, I will add to you seven times more plagues, according to your sin. … 23 And if with these [plagues] you do not turn to Me, and you walk with Me randomly. 24 I too will walk with you randomly, and I — I too — will punish you sevenfold, according to your sin. … 27 And with this [additional punishment] you do not turn to Me, and you walk with Me randomly. 28 I will walk with you with the fury of randomnss, and I — I too — will give you trials, sevenfold, according to your sin. … 40 And they will confess their sin and their fathers’ sin, the embezzlement which they embezzled from Me, and also that they walked with Me randomly. 41 I too will walk randomly with them and I will bring them into the land of their enemies; only then their calloused hearts will be humbled, and they will have repaired their iniquity.

- Vayiqra 26:21,23-24,27-28,40-41

In retrospect the verses of rebuke clearly describe life in exile. G-d abandoning us to the forces of history. As a tiny nation with no political power, that alone is to guarantee punishment.

And yet, when we look at galus overall, our survival these 1943 years since the fall of the Beis haMiqdash speaks louder of Hashem’s Presence than reading all the narratives of Tanakh! As we will say next week, “Vehi she’amdah — This is what stands for our ancestors and us: that not one alone sought to destroy us. Rather, in every generation they rise up to destroy us. And Hashem saves us” — albeit too often with many many casualties — “from their hands”.

What divides vayiqar from vayiqra? A single letter, an inaudible letter, and yet also the letter that represents the start, and the unity of the Creator. What divides being called from happenstance? Hearing the “small still voice” of G-d within. Whether one chooses to look for Him or unfortunately chooses not to.

This thought from the Chief Rabbi reminded me of Rav Dessler’s approach to the line between nature and miracle. A topic I discussed in Mesukim MiDevash for Beshalach, pp 1-2:

Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable…. Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this principle. Mekubalim speak of four olamos, each of a higher level than the previous: asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), beri’ah (creation) and atzilus (emanation)….

People have two sources of information that they consider absolute. The first is their senses – sight, sound, and so on. The second is their self-awareness. The senses bring us information about the physical world. Self awareness brings us concepts like truth, freedom and oppression. Someone mired in the desires of the senses lives in the physical world. He focuses his attention on it, just as everyone focuses on that which is important to them. “Every tailor notices and looks at the clothing of the people in the street; and similarly every shoemaker, shoes…” The man of the senses therefore perceives it as more objective and more absolute than the world of the self…. This is olam ha’asiyah.

However, one can rise above that to the olam ha’yetzirah. This is not merely another level, but another world with its own laws, laws that do not conflict with free will. Those who focus on this world have no question that free will exists. To them, it is the ideals of this world that are more objective and absolute, and the senses, more subjective. Rav Dessler explains that this is how nissim can impact one person’s senses and not another’s. Yetzirah is the Maharal’s plane of nissim, and as the Maharal noted different people will perceive the miraculous differently, or not at all. And so the sea split in olam hayetzirah, but not in olam ha’asiyah.

According to Rav Dessler, someone who truly sees the world in terms of justice and kindness, freedom or oppression, to the extent that those laws are more objective and more absolute than gravity, conservation of energy, or electromagnetic force, then those laws actually do drive their reality. Such a person would live in a world of miracle rather than nature.

As long as we refuse to see Hashem’s “Hand” in the calamities of our exile, we see the events as random (Purim – Lots), qeri. When one seeks out the small alef, one’s experience is an entirely different reality; rather than being subject to happenstance or called by G-d.

Holiness and Carrying the Yoke with the Other

(The following is based on a class I gave on Shabbat at Mussar Kallah IX, and is the further development of a number of ideas R’ Gil Student and I wrote for Mesuqim MiDevash.)

The question of holiness is central to the title phrase of the sedra of Qedoshim. “Qedoshim tihyu hi Qadosh Ani – Be qadosh [holy, sacred] for I Am Qadosh.” (Vayiqra 19:2) But what is qedushah?

Translating it as “sanctity” or “holiness” falls short as: (1) the meaning of the English is itself not too clear, (2) nor are we sure that they truly capture the connotations of the Hebrew original.

The Sifra[1], commenting on our verse, writes “’qedoshim tihyu’: perushim tihyu – ‘be holy’: you shall be separated”.

Along these lines, Rashi understands the verse as referring to the list of laws of intimacy with which the previous sedra concluded, as well as other transgressions. And he gives other examples where such a separation is associated with the concept of qedushah.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) writes “make yourself qadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted.

It would seem that they are both defining qedushah as separation. But there is also a real difference. Rashi discusses things that are specifically prohibited. The Ramban is quite specifically speaking about separating oneself from things that are not the topic of a specific prohibition – there is no ban on the action, but rather the action isn’t in concert with being a holy person.

A parallel division exists in other discussions about qedushah.

In parashas Sheqalim, the portion discussing the mitzvah for each person to donate a 1/2 sheqel coin to the Temple (also counted for a census), we are told to take “half a sheqel of a sheqel haqodesh”. The Ramban (ad loc) explains that these sheqalim were considered sacred because they were used for holy purposes. The funds gathered by this census in the first year were donated towards the construction of the Tabernacle, other “sheqel haqodesh” were used for buying offerings and utensils for the Tabernacle or Temple, or for redeeming a first-born. Along similar lines, Rabbeinu Bachya (ad loc) writes, “Since all mitzvos are the core of holiness and some mitzvos require this currency,” the currency takes on a holiness corresponding to its use.

The Ramban continues, Hebrew is called leshon haqodesh – the holy language – because it was and continues to be used for holy purposes. It is the language in which G-d said “yehi or – let there be light”, in which He gave us the Torah and the Tanakh was written, the language in which our ancestors were named, etc…

However, the Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that the Rambam (Maimonides) has a very different understanding of why Hebrew is called “the holy language”. In his Guide for the Perplexed (3:8), Rambam explains that Hebrew is called sacred because it has no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts, for the acts that lead to conception of a child, nor does it have precise terms for the various bodily emissions and excretions.

Rabbi Shimon Romm [2] explains this dispute between Rambam and Ramban as being a fundamental disagreement over the nature of qedushah, holiness.

According to Ramban (Nachmanides), holiness comes from being committed for a purpose. When currency is used for a mitzvah it becomes sacred and when a language is used to create the world and convey the Torah it becomes sanctified.

According to the Rambam (Maimonides), however, holiness is not due to a positive usage but to a lack of diminution of its purity. A language is inherently sacred and only loses that status when it contains less than holy words. Presumably, the Rambam would explain that the sheqel haqodesh is called holy because, as the Ramban himself suggests at the beginning of his comments, the sheqel coins used in the Torah were entirely pure, lacking all dilution. This purity of content, rather than its sanctity of use, is what earned for these coins the title of qadosh. R’ Romm continued that it would seem that the Rashi we looked at agrees with the Rambam. By not engaging in prohibited action, one lives up to “be holy”.

Someone in the audience when I presented this material at Mussar Kallah IX suggested another way to understand the dispute. It could be that both sides agree in how they define qedushah — holiness. Rather, they disagree about the nature of the mitzvah. Rashi sees the obligation “qedoshim tihyu — be holy” as one to protect the holiness we already have; not to descend the ladder, so to speak. And therefore it’s accomplished by not tainting oneself with sin. The Ramban sees it as a duty to increase one’s holiness, to climb the ladder, and therefore to commit beyond what would otherwise be mandatory.

When a Mussarist wants to understand a middah, the first place to turn is a genre of mussar texts that are organized by middah. Most famously Orchos Tzadiqim and Mesilat Yesharim (Ways of the Righteous, and Path of the Just, respectively.) The last chapter of Mesilat Yesharim (ch. 26) discusses Qedushah. To quote Rav Shraga Simmons’ translation, in part:

Note the distinction between one who is Pure and one who is Holy. The earthy actions of the first are necessary ones, and he is motivated by necessity alone, so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure. But they do not approach Holiness, for it were better if one could get along without them. One who is Holy, however, and clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his Creator -such a person is as one walking before God in the Land of the Living, here in this world. …

In fine, Holiness consists in one’s clinging so closely to his God that in any deed he might perform he does not depart or move from the Blessed One, until the physical objects of which he makes use become more elevated because of his having used them, than he descends from his communion and from his high plane because of his having occupied himself with them. This obtains, however, only in relation to one whose mind and intelligence cling so closely to the greatness, majesty and Holiness of the Blessed One that it is as if he is united with the celestial angels while yet in this world….

According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the “Ramchal”), a focus on separation is more associated with purity than with holiness. Avoiding unnecessary entanglements with the physical “so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure.” Qedushah is clinging to G-d.

Is this a shift in definition from that offered by the Sifra and discussed through the next millennium by Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, Nachmanides and Maimonides?

Rav Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher, introduction) argues that the Sifra’s comment cannot be an actual definition. He points out that separation as a definition would fail for the verse’s next clause – “for I [Hashem] am Qadosh”. There is no purpose or meaning in Hashem restraining Himself, no dangerous entanglements for Him to avoid. (For that matter, it is arguable that such separation on His part would mean the item in question would cease to exist!)

Perhaps we could also note that Nachmanides could not be understanding the Sifra as defining qedushah. You cannot translate a word using another conjugation of the same word. “Qadeish es atmekha bemah shemutar lakh — sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” therefore cannot be his elaboration of a definition. Rather, the Ramban is suggesting the way in which to obey the verse and become holy to someone who already knows how to translate the word.

So, qedushah is commitment to Hashem’s goal, which the Ramban is telling us we can reach by separation from the pursuit of other goals.

All that is left is the “simple” question of defining that goal.

Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction opens (tr. mine):

BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker1, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our 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 (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

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.” And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim [ie the Sifra] 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.

According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible. 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 above Yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand; in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Sanctity], 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, this kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.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 – 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 no one else.

Maimonides would be bothered by this attempt to explain why Hashem created the universe. It requires assuming our mind can contain His “Thought”. (At the Kallah, this topic took on a life of its own.) However, this approach, that Hashem must have created the world to have someone to whom to be good is found in sources as diverse as Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDeios” (an Aristotilian from 9th-10th cent Baghdad) to the Ramchal’s “Derekh Hashem” (an Italian Qabbalist, 18th cent CE). Even a Maimonidian, though, can accept the notion that this is how Hashem presents Himself to us; G-d as He appears through his actions as opposed to the unknowable G-d as He is. In any case…

G-d’s goal is to bestow good on others. Which paradoxically doesn’t mean doing everything for us and making our lives perfect, as that would deprive us of a greater good: the ability to emulate His Good and to bestow good to others. Ours and the world’s imperfections are areas where there is good left for us to bestow.

Is this not, after all, what Hillel famously told the prospective convert?

There is another story [this is the third in a sequence] with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s  amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

- Shabbos 55a

What then is the role of the more rite-like mitzvot? If Hashem’s goal for us is to emulate Him in being good to others, why do we need kashrut, Shabbat, mezuzah, etc, etc, etc…? (This topic also took on a life of its own). I suggested two coexisting reasons:

First, such mitzvot teach discipline, they habituate us in making more thoughtful decisions. For example, one doesn’t just see food and eat it, one has to pay attention to what one is eating and how the food is prepared. Second, one needs to develop a relationship with G-d in order to accomplish this goal. One cannot bestow Hashem’s good upon others without knowing what that good is. Such knowledge requires the “go learn”, both from Torah texts and from the experiences provided by the mitzvot that mediate the relationship between man and G-d.

Even relaxation can be sanctified; if one rests for the purpose of being able to continue doing one’s mission in life without burnout. To protect future productivity at this goal by not trying to exceed one’s capacity in the short term.

So, you might have started reading this essay picturing a holy person as a hermit in a cave, an ascetic who spends his day in prayer. Referring back to the title of the post, you might have assumed that separation of holiness is in tension with our duty to nosei be’ol im chaveiro — share the burden of the other, to help him “pull his yoke”. Conflicting values we must balance. This is quite far from Rav Shimon’s definition; the separation isn’t asceticism, rather a very focus on being good to others.

We say in the Amidah: “You are Qadosh, and Your Name [Reputation] is Qadosh, and qedoshim praise You every day. Selah! [For you are G-d, King, Great and Qadosh. –Sepharad] Baruch Atah … the Qadosh G-d.”

It is not coincidence that there are three clauses, and three iterations of the word “Qadosh” in the verse at the heart of Qedushah (Isaiah 6:3). As we quote in the prayer UVa leTzion, Targum Yonatan explains that verse as follows: “Qadosh in the heavens above, the home of His Presence; Qadosh on the earth, the product of His Might; Qadosh forever and ever is Hashem Tzevakos – the whole world is full of the Radiance of His Glory.” The “home of His Glory” is where Hashem is Qadosh. The earth, is where Hashem’s name, how people perceive him, is Qadosh. And the qedoshim, the people who allow others to experience Hashem’s good, fill the world with His Glory – their sanctity is his praise.

According to Rav Shimon Shkop, this blessings becomes, “You are committed to bestow food on others, and your reputation is that of an undivided commitment to bestowing good on others, and people who live entirely for sharing your good with others praise you. Selah!” It is not simply that the class of people who are committed to working for others rather than being self-focused also praise Hashem. It is working for the betterment of others which itself is praise.

There are a number of prayers that require a minyan: the repetition of the amidah, and a class of prayers called davar shebiqdushah — proclamations of holiness. Among these prayers are Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah. In case you question whether our final definition of holiness is authentic, notice this: One cannot say the prayer of Qedushah alone.


[1] The Sifra, also called Torat Kohanim, is attributed to Rav (175-247 CE). Rav also founded of the Babylonian academy of Sura, which centuries later produced the Talmud. Rav’s real name, was Abba Akira, Abba the tall. He frequently appears in the Talmud, consistently under his honorific.

[2] Rabbi Shimon Romm was a student of the pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva who participated in their flight from Nazi-occupied Vilna to Shanghai. He became a rabbi in Washington Heights, NY and a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University. Thanks to R’ Gil Student for relaying this thought.

Purpose of Qorbanos, part II

“This is what is meant by the verse (Tehillim 89:7), “For who in the heavens can equal God, can compare with God among the divine beings?” Said the A-lmighty, “If I wanted a sacrifice, wouldn’t I simply ask Michael, who is right here next to Me, to offer to Me a sacrifice? From whom do I want a sacrifice? From Israel!”
– Tanchuma, beginning of Parashas Tzav

The Kotzker Rebbe explains this medrash. Hashem does not desire the qorban itself. Mal’achim could make a far more perfect offering with no adulteration of intent. Rather, the qorban is in the decision to give. Hashem gave us the power to decide, and our handing back that which is truly ours is what brings us close to Him.

Barukh shekivanti!

Purpose of Qorbanos

When reviewing what I wrote on this subject for the Mesukim on Vayiqra, I noticed some more points. First to summarize:Rambam (naively reading the Moreh Nevuchim): Hashem gave us qorbanos, a normal idolatrous practice, to wean us from avodah zarah.Ramban: How is this possible? Noach offered a qorban and there were no idolators or peer pressure. Rather qorbanos are to unify all planes of human existance: the thought of teshuvah, the speech of confession, and the action of the qorban. In addition, the person who sinned and brought a qorban sees the offering and realizes the severity of the act; that justice untempered by mercy would have called for his own death, not an animal’s.

(The question remains how the Ramban understands qorbanos that are less related to sin.)

Narvoni: The Rambam doesn’t speak of qorbanos as caused by the practice being avodah zarah. Rather, the practice expresses an inate human limitation. And if one doesn’t allow an expression for avodas Hashem, the need would lead people to avodah zarah.

Abarbanel: There are many proofs that qorbanos are part of an ideal, and not a concession to human limitation.

I then suggested a variant on the Narvoni’s idea that doesn’t fit the Rambam’s words, that the need to give in worship is a human need, but a positive thing, not a limitation. Any real relationship seeks expression in giving — whether it’s qorbanos or flowers. (And in both cases, the primary gift is the act of giving; Hashem doesn’t need the qorban and my wife tends not to take a second look at the flowers.)

So much for the summary.

1- The word “qorban” is the “-an” (object related to) suffix added to /qrb/ (to come close, the root of the word “kiruv”, to cause to come close). However, this has (at least) two meanings: an object that expresses a closeness already felt, or one that causes a closeness.

Perhaps this is reflected in our machloqes. The Rambam, especially as understood by the Narvoni, sees a qorban as an expression of a feeling already there, one which we therefore see in avodah zarah, and which the person needs in order to feel like a worshipper. The Ramban sees a qorban as a tool for acheiving closeness by unifying all his abilities to this end.

2- The Meshech Chokhmah (introduction to Vayiqra) finds a role for each explanation. The Rambam’s notion of weaning was the role of bamos, of altars built to G-d on mountaintops, outside of the mishkan. The weaning period ended when the Beis haMiqdash was dedicated in Yerushalayim, which is why bamos became prohibited at that time. However, we failed, avodah zarah and bamos thrived throughout the first Temple. Qorbanos in the Beis haMiqdash is called a rei’ach nikho’ach (a pleasant smell before Hashem) because they were to unify the worlds, as explained by the Ramban.

In light of the two meanings we gave to qorban, this explains why bamos were not mandatory — they were only for an expression of a feeling already there. As it says in parashas Vayiqra, “ish ki yaqriv mikem qorban — a person, when he brings from you a qorban”, when he chooses. However, the qorbanos at the mishkan or beis hamiqdash are not if/when, but obligatory. Because they create the motivation even when it’s not already there.

3- Allowing the Meshech Chokhmah’s idea that the Rambam’s and Ramban’s ideas can coexist, we can reach an interesting conclusion. According to the Ramban, the point of qorban is about it being an action more than the physical object being offered. Perhaps this is true even when the qorban is Rambam-esque, an expression of a human need. Like the husband who brings flowers, the primary gift is the giving itself, the statement “I need to give”.

4- What a far cry from the 9 seconds given to Qorbanos between “Atah Hu” and “Rabbi Yishma’el” in the minyan I attend every morning. Where’s that “need to give” that marks having a true relationship with the Creator?

I don’t think all the thoughts above will help. I think the gap between mind and heart is too great for philosophising to create an emotional need. Emotions are build slowly, through repetition. Perhaps we should pick one tefillah from Qorbanos, maybe the Tamid that the Shacharis we are davening derives from. And not only having these kavanos when saying it, but also simply thinking, “Ribono shel olam, I can’t even feel the loss of qorbanos. Please help me!”

Atah Qadosh

“You Are Kadosh, and Your Name Is Kadosh, and kedoshim praise You every day. Selah! [For you are G-d, King, Great and Kadosh. –Sepharad] Baruch Atah … the Kadosh G-d.”

The question of kedushah is also central to the opening phrase of one of last week’s parashiyos. “Kedoshim tihyu… – Be kadosh for I Am Kadosh.” (Vayikra 19:2) But what is kedushah? Translating it as “sanctity” or “holiness” falls short as the meaning of the English words is not too clear, nor are we sure that they truly capture the connotations of the Hebrew original.

The Toras Kohanim (Sifra) on the pasuk writes “‘kedoshim tihyu’ – perushim tihyu, you shall be separated”. Along these lines the Ramban writes “make yourself kadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted. It would seem that they are defining kedushah as separation.

However, Rav Shimon Shkop (Shaarei Yosheir, introduction) notes that this definition fails for the clause – “for I am kadosh”. There is no purpose or meaning in Hashem restraining Himself.  (For that matter, it is arguable that such perishus on Hashem’s part would mean the item in question would cease to exist!) Perhaps we could also note that the Ramban could not be defining kedushah since he uses the word “kadosh” in the definition. Rather, the Ramban is suggesting the way in which to obey the pasuk and become kadosh to someone who already knows what kadosh is.

What we do know about Hashem is that He desires leheitiv, to bestow good upon others. The entire universe exists so that Hashem could have someone to receive His gift. Rav Shimon translates “ki Kadosh Ani” as “for I am fully committed to helping others.” The call to be kadosh is the call to live one’s life for the sake of bettering others. To be kadosh is to avoid that which serves no one but the person himself.

Returning to the recurring theme of the opening berachos of Shemonah Esrei…

If we turn to the phrase inserted in nusach Sefarad, we find kedushah associated with Hashem being King, and being Gadol, Great. These are both words that the Gra finds very significant in understanding the first berachah. Moshe’s praise, “haKel haGadol haGibbor vehaNorah – the G-d, the Great, the Mighty and the Awe Inspiring” finds reiterating development throughout that berachah. We therefore enter this berachah after having defined Gadol as “gomeil chassadim tovim – supports through good acts of kindness.” Hashem is Great because his Good fills all of creation. The total commitment to giving to others that Rav Shimon uses to define kedushah.

So, our berachah becomes, “You are committed to being meitiv others, and your reputation (shimcha) is that of being meitiv others, and people who do good to others praise you. Selah!” It is not simply that the class of people who are committed to working for others rather than being self-focused also praise Hashem. It is working for the betterment of others which itself is praise.

It is not coincidence that there are three clauses, and three iterations of the word “Kadosh” in the verse at the heart of Kedushah (Yishayahu 6:3). As we say in UVa leTzion, Targum Yonasan explains the pasuk as follows: “Kadosh in the heavens above, the home of His Presence; Kadosh on the earth, the product of His Might; Kadosh forever and ever is Hashem Tzevakos – the whole world is full of the Radiance of His Glory.” The “home of His Glory” is where Hashem is Kadosh. The earth, is where Hashem’s name, how people perceive him, is Kadosh. And the kedoshim, the people who allow others to experience Hashem’s good, fill the world with His Glory – their sanctity is his praise.

Parashas Eiqev

In this week’s parashah Moshe describes Hashem as “… haKel haGadol haGibor vihaNorah — the G-d, the Great, the A-lmighty, and the Awesome …”. These words were incorporated by the Anshei Kinesses Hagedolah into the opening of the Shemoneh Esrei.

The same phrase is also found at the conclusion of the poem “Nishmas”. There, the poet goes even further and gives each one an explanatory phrase. This yields the strange result that the very same poem that says that “even if our mouths were filled of poetry like the sea, and our tongues – joy, like the many waves, and our lips – praise like the expanses of sky … we would still not be sufficient to praise you”, this same poem then praises G-d in four words!

A student who lead the congregation as Chazan before the tanna Rabbi Chanina once embellished on these four simple adjectives. After he was finished, Rabbi Chanina corrected him, “Have you finished all possible praise of your Master?” No list of complements could completely describe Hashem. Had Moshe not spoken these words, and Hashem not told him to write them into the Torah, we would not have the chutzpah to use these four. (Berakhos 33b)

According to the Vilna Gaon, “haKel haGadol haGibor vihaNorah” was not only included in the first berakhah of the Shemoneh Esrei, but it is the basis for the structure of the rest of the berakhah too.

To the Vilna Gaon, these four names of G-d form a progression. They summarize how man approaches G-d.

Kel means not only G-d but judge or legislator. To be HaKel, THE Legislator, means that Hashem rules over the entire universe, His authority is all-inclusive.

Rabbi Yochanan (Megilah 31a) said, “Where ever you find G-d’s greatness, that is where you find His humility”. Perhaps we can understand this apparent paradox by comparing G-d’s properties to those of humans. Schools have a problem of overcrowding. There are just so many students a teacher can adequately pay attention to. As the number of students grows, each one can only get less and less attention. Not so Hashem. His infinity is not just that He is a “Kel“, G-d over all, but also “Gadol“, great enough to give personal attention to each person.

HaGibor. We said already that Hashem Legislates to all, and that He is not limited to looking only at the universal picture, but can pay attention to each and every one of us. The combination of these two facts yields “HaGibor“. G-d has the power and uses it to guide each of us in our daily lives.

VehaNorah. There are two types of Divine intervention, the behind-the-scenes subtle activity, that the non-believer dismisses as mere luck, and the flashy miracle that defies the law of nature. While the former is more common, it is the miracle that inspires awe.

These thoughts are elaborated twice in the berakhah, once before the quote of the pasuk, and once after.

Baruch. Chazal write often that “‘berakhah‘ is a term of increase”. To call G-d “blessed” means that He is limitless. This is HaKel.

Ata. It is incredible that man has the gall to talk to G-d, to refer to the Creator as “You”. What grants us that power? HaGadol, He is big enough to attend to each of us.

Elokeinu. The Vilna Gaon teaches that this corresponds to “HaGibor“. Elokeinu, our G-d, is different than HaKel, The G-d. There is a possessiveness, this might and authority of HaKel doesn’t only apply to the big picture, but he guides each of us, our fates and destinies.

Elokei Avoseinu. In our lives, Hashem’s intervention is subtle. However, for our forefathers He performed miracles. Whereas Elokeinu, our G-d, refers to Hashem’s constant guiding of history, Elokei Avoseinu, G-d of our Fathers, asserts that the same One can work outside of the laws of nature. In order to work toward the day when we too will merit an age of miracles, we next recall each forefather, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, by name, to recall and resolve to emulate their character strengths.

Next we repeat the four names of Hashem from this week’s parashah, and then elaborate on the themes in a different variation.

HaKel. This is elaborated as “Kel Elyon“, G-d above all. Again, we declare that He commands everything.

HaGadol. As we said earlier, this means that He not only looks at the universe as a whole, but pays attention to each and every one of us. This is why “gomel chassadim tovim”, Hashem supports us through His kindness.

HaGibor. The consequence of being the G-d above all, and able to relate to the individual is that this means He touches each of our lives. The Vilna Gaon translates “konei” in our context from the root of “litakein”, to fix. Konei hakol, Hashem fixes all, heals the sick, raises the downtrodden and the depressed.

VihaNorah. “Zokheir chasdei avos“. Hashem remembers how our fathers went beyond the call of obligation. We are only “benei beneihem“, the children of their children, twice removed from their stature. But whatever of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov we carry, may it be enough that we too merit miraculous intervention, that Hashem bring us our redeemer.