Permanent Holiness

It is written, “Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for holy am I’ ” (Vayikra 19:2). Here the Sages immediately note: “It is written, ‘You shall be holy.’ Does this mean that you can be like Me [G-d]? Hence we read, ‘for holy am I, Hashem your G-d’ – My holiness is greater than yours” (Vayikra Rabba 24:9). This is surprising, for can anyone possibly think that the holiness of Israel would equal G-d’s? Furthermore, this parsha, according to Torat Kohanim, was said before the entire community. Why was it said before everyone? It is because most of the Torah’s major principles depend on it. We find several other parshiot that contain many laws, and yet they were not said before the entire community. Therefore what is the difference between this week’s parsha and all the others, such that it was said before the entire community?

I would like to explain this week’s parsha with Mussar. Let us begin by noting what we find in the statements of the Sages in various places, namely that the holiness of Israel is greater that of the angels. The Sages say, “The Children of Israel are dearer to the Holy One, blessed be He, than the ministering angels, for Israel sings praises to Hashem every hour, whereas the ministering angels sing praises but once a day. Others say once a week, while others say once a month. Others say once a year, while others say once in seven years. Others say once in fifty years, while others say once in eternity. And whereas Israel mentions G-d’s Name after two words, as it is said: ‘Hear, O Israel, Hashem’ [Devarim 6:4], the ministering angels only mention G-d’s Name after three words, as it is written: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is Hashem of hosts’ [Isaiah 6:3]. Moreover, the ministering angels do not start singing praises in Heaven until the Children of Israel have sung on earth” (Chullin 91b). The Sages have also said, “Each day ministering angels are created from the fiery stream, sing praises, and cease to be” (Chagigah 14a). From here we learn of Israel’s holiness: When the ministering angels sing Hashem’s praises, they immediately disappear. As for the Children of Israel, they pray to their Father in Heaven three times a day, but do not disappear. Furthermore, they sanctify themselves through prayer and cleave to Him, and thus everything they need is given to them through prayer.

May My Body Be Healthy to Serve Him

A man only attains holiness by killing himself in the tent of the Torah, as the Sages have said: “One should never abstain from the Beit HaMidrash or from Torah, even in the hour of death, for it is said: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in a tent’ [Bamidbar 19:14]. Even in the hour of death, one should be engaged in [learning] Torah. Resh Lakish said: Words of Torah only endure with one who kills himself for it, as it is said: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in a tent’ ” (Shabbat 83b). In regards to Rabbeinu HaKodesh, it is said that at the time of his death, he lifted up his ten fingers and said, “Sovereign of the universe, it is revealed and known before You that I have labored in the study of Torah with my ten fingers, and that I did not enjoy [worldly] benefits even with my little finger. May it be Your will that there be peace in my resting place” (Ketubot 104a). He conducted himself with tremendous holiness, and throughout his life he never placed his hands below his belt. Since he distanced himself from the pleasures of this world, he attained holiness.

How can a person reach the point of killing himself in Torah study, since in the end he was created in this world with a physical body, and therefore he must eat, drink, and sleep in order to live? When he sanctifies himself in what is permitted, and only eats, drinks, and sleeps to regain his strength in order to serve Hashem – not for the pleasures of his body – Scripture regards it as if he has killed himself for Torah, since he cannot do more than this. Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk recommends, “Before washing the hands to eat, we should say Rabbeinu Yona’s prayer for one who repents, and after eating the motzi we should say: “I do not eat for the pleasure of my body, but only so my body can be strong and in good health to serve Him. May no sin, evil thought, or physical pleasure come and delay the ‘yichud’ by the holy sparks of this food and drink.”

A Life of Holiness from Childhood

When a person sanctifies himself in what is permitted, only stretching out his hand for what his body needs to live, and when he distances himself from the pleasures of this world, Scripture considers him to have not profited from this world. It considers him to have killed himself for Torah and mitzvot, and he thereby attains a level greater than that of the angels. Because this person has sanctified himself to such a degree, he may succumb to pride and think: “I have sanctified myself more than enough, and I don’t need to sanctify myself any further, since in any case the evil inclination does not control me.” In that case, the Torah tells him: “Know that My holiness is greater than yours, and even if you killed yourself for Torah today, you have no right to rest. You must work each day until your final day, since the evil inclination can enter you and bring you down from the level you now occupy.” The Sages have said, “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die” (Pirkei Avoth 2:4). This means that until a person’s dying day, he must conduct himself with great sanctity, never wavering in his service of Hashem. Otherwise the evil inclination may return and make him sin.

This passage was said before the entire community of Israel, and everyone heard it – men, women, and children – in order to teach children that they must not run after the pleasures of this world as children do, and their parents must accustom them to living in holiness and purity from childhood. As we read concerning Yehoshua ben Chanania, his mother brought him as a baby to the Beit HaMidrash in order for words of Torah to enter his ears. Of his mother the Sages said: “Happy is she who gave birth to him.” It is the duty of every Jew to educate his sons in Torah and mitzvot, as King Solomon said: “Train a child according to his way, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Mishlei 22:6).


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