Sunday, May 08, 2005

Kedoshim Tihiyu

Sorry this is after-the-fact, but I just came upon it again -- and it's always relevant. I wrote it for last year's Mesukim M'davash at



I lived in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn when I was a teenager. Bound in and nourished by the sea, Brighton was sunny and bright in the summer, cold and crisp in the winter. A lower-middle-class neighborhood, it had no airs and made no assumptions. And while nearly everyone there was Jewish, almost no one was religious.

Brighton's Jewish men smoked cigars, played cards, drank beer, worked hard, and loved their families -- and the resplendent beach. And its Jewish women wore pants and light blouses everywhere, played canasta and bingo, ate well, kept a tidy home, and also loved their families and the beach.

But when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came, all of Brighton was religious, and things like cigars and sunning oneself on the beach went by the waysides. Everyone was in shul.

Some could read Hebrew and follow along with the service but many couldn't; yet nearly all of them stayed for the long haul (except for the die-hard communists who only came for Kaddish).

The most magical moment to my mind was when all the Cohen, Katz, and Kagan men went up to duchin, and every one of them shone.

"Yivaraichacha!" the chazan would call out, and the Kohanim would chant in all earnestness and fervor, "Yivaraichacha!", and so on. And for a while, each one of them stood in the Beis Hamikdosh with his alter zaeida, bentching Clall Yisroel in the presence of the Ribbono Shel Olam.

By the time the Chazan called out "Shalom!" and they all responded "Shalom!" after a lengthy "Aay Yaay Yaay Yaay..." the air was fraught with out-and-out kedusha. We had all somehow been transported in time, place -- and in madreiga. And everyone knew it.


What exactly is kedusha, though? Terms like "holiness", "sacredness", and "saintliness" -- which all denote the same thing but offer nothing new -- come to mind. Yet we're told to be holy in this week's parsha (Vayikrah 19:2). So we'll obviously need help on this.

Interestingly enough, Rambam doesn't list being holy as a mitzvah per se, but depicts it instead as an overall goal of living the mitzvah life (see Sefer HaMitzvos, Shoresh 4). The commentators offer many insights, of course. Some say it touches on our relationship to food, drink, and all other earthly delights, and offer that a holy person wouldn't sully himself by indulging in forbidden things -- or overindulging in permitted things (Rashi, Ramban). Others depict it as a charge to be in the world yet removed from it at the same time (Ohaiv Yisrael, Chiddushei HaRim, Chassam Sofer, as cited in Nachshoni's Haga'os b'Parshios HaTorah). And yet others who are sensitive to the loftiness of perch required of someone who would be holy do indeed assure us that we each do have it within us to achieve it (Ohr HaChayim, as cited by Nachshoni; also see Hilchot Teshuvah 5: 2).

But that last point alludes to something that the commentators don't seem to address: what I would depict as an inherent human need to believe in actual holiness; full, rich, unalloyed, and refreshing piety. For there seems to be a thread along the lining of every human heart that never gives up hope in that; that knows somehow or another that despite the cynical take we have on humanity in our age there are indeed holy people.

So let us explore the devices that the great and indeed holy Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto himself suggests we use to arrive at true kedusha.


First off, he portrays kedusha as a barometer of sorts of relative closeness to Hashem. Thus, the closer one is to Him (emotionally and devotionally), the holier he is (Ma'amar Ha'Ikkurim). So we would need to strive for such closeness. He suggests elsewhere that holiness comes down to utter kindness and benevolence (Adair B'Marom 1, pp. 194-195), which we would also do well to foster.

But he makes another point elsewhere that seems to sum it up best, and also seems to bring us back to Brighton Beach.

"Holiness is a twofold matter" he says; one that "begins in effort and ends in recompense; begins in striving and ends in being given as a gift." That is, first each one of us would have to set out to truly sanctify him- or herself, and in the end G-d will see to it that we are indeed sanctified (Messilat Yesharim, Ch. 26).

What that seems to imply is that we are to first accept the notion that holiness is indeed possible, and that we too can achieve it. But we are also to realize that we would somehow or another have to step out of character to do that, be what we are capable of being but are not yet. And that we would have to call upon Hashem to come to our side and enable us to "duchan from the bimah" despite ourselves, and to serve Him there based on our yichus as Jews and/or Kohanim.

May the Ribbono Shel Olam grant us that wish, and may our Cohen's, Katz's, and Kagan's soon duchan from the bimah of the rebuilt Beis HaMikdosh!

(c) Rabbi Yaakov Feldman