Parshas Shemini: Living Holy, Living Higher

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shemini, after commanding us regarding ma’achaalos mutaros and asuros (permitted and forbidden food-stuffs), including animals, fowl, and fish (Vayikra 11), the pasuk commands us: כִּי אֲנִי ה’, אֱלֹקְיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִיFor I am Hashem, your G-d, you are to sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am holy (Vayikra 11:44).  We are commanded to be holy.  Yet holiness is an esoteric concept, a mitzvah that is not tangible and not concrete.  How can we achieve holiness, and what does this mean?

Rav Yaakov Bender shlita, Rosh Ha’Yeshiva Yeshiva Darchei Torah, writes, “Kedusha – holiness – is a word so basic to Yiddishkeit.  Our Creator, the Borei Olam, is Kadosh, holy, and we are mandated to emulate Him (see Sotah 14a and Shabbos 133b), to find ways to create kedushah in our lives.  But what does it mean, to be kadosh?

“Sometimes, you hear a word used in a certain context, again and again.  Holiness, to many people, is connected with asceticism, a holy person being someone who fasts, or immerses in a mikvah regularly.  This is certainly part of kedushah, but it is not the full extent of kedushah.  Kabbalas Ha’Torah changed the essence of our nation, investing every single person with a new mission and new abilities.  

“But, wonders the Meshech Chochmah in Parshas Yisro, what did Kabbalas HaTorah change for Moshe Rabbeinu?  He had been able to ascend to heaven even before the Giving of the Torah!  Had he not already reached perfection, the epitome of holiness?

“Until Matan Torah, explains the Meshech Chochmah, Moshe Rabbeinu could serve Hashem, but only through spiritual means, connecting through ruchniyus; the chiddush, the innovation of Matan Torah, was that it allowed man to access the greatest kedushah possible through gashmiyus, through physical tools.  Food and drink, clothing and furniture, interpersonal relationships and words between people… suddenly, it could all be sanctified.  Man became holy.

“At the sneh, the burning bush, Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 3:5), “Remove your shoes from upon your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground,” as if to say: ‘Take off the clothing that serve as vehicles for your gashmiyusdik’e living.  Remove your chomer (physical components of self) as you approach Me.  Here, as you stand before G-d, you must be an angel.’

“However, that was before Matan Torah.  After Matan Torah, the shoes are part of the package.  The package was called a ‘mentch,’ to whom the Torah was given.  The Torah is telling us: ‘Be Holy!  Figure out how to live and exist within society, to be a father and husband and friend who is holy, for I am holy.’  The Creator invested us with kedushah and planted us in a world where we are meant to spread that holiness, to invest our relationships and interactions with kedushahKedusha, we must teach our children, is always within reach.  If there are people around you, there are opportunities to be holy.  You just have to look for them” (Rav Yaakov Bender on Chumash, Artscroll, p.189-191).  

What a beautiful, relevant and applicable message and lesson.  What is holiness?  Eating, drinking, dressing, interacting, and living in this world; but knowing how to eat, drink, dress, interact and live within the parameters of Torah.  While pre-Matan Torah, Moshe had to remove his shoes, i.e.: divest himself of physicality to achieve holiness and connection with G-d, after Matan Torah, we are commanded regarding what we can eat, and what we cannot eat, and that very engagement in the physical world has the capacity to make us holy.  Through elevated physical living, holiness can be attained.

“There were times that Rebbetzin Kanievsky a’h gave away so much of the food in her house to their daily orchim – visitors, petitioners, and indigent people alike – that she or a granddaughter had to go to the grocery store to replenish basic provisions.  Some people would just walk into the house and go to the refrigerator in her bedroom (the kitchen was too small to accommodate one) and help themselves to a meal or take out most of the food!  During the last three years of her life, one grandson came daily and put stickers on some of the food in the refrigerator and on one bottle of the diet grapefruit drink that Rav Chaim favors.  The stickers said ‘Reserved exclusively for the Rav and Rabbanit.’  Sometimes even this didn’t help; people either didn’t notice the stickers or ignored them.

“Because the Rebbetzin did not want to reach the point where there would be no food left for R’ Chaim, she allowed one – and only one – container to be labeled as reserved.  A few times the grandchild affixed a sticker that said, ‘Please don’t take.’  The Rebbetzin removed those stickers and said that she didn’t like the wording, as everything in her refrigerator was intended for everyone.

“A certain woman, ‘Milka,’ took advantage of living nearby and would regularly empty out most of the contents of the Kanievsky fridge, including many home-baked items.  She told the Kanievsky family members that the Rebbetzin had given her permission to feed her family from the Kanievsky fridge.  The relatives begged Rebbetzin Kanievsky to discontinue allowing Milka to help herself to the food.  The Rebbetzin replied, ‘Should the woman and her family starve?  I always make sure there’s enough food for Abba and me, and my refrigerator and food are public property” (Rebbetzin Kanievsky, Artscroll, p.316).

Torah and ruchniyus are holiness, and gashmius must also be channeled into holiness, so that we may eat what is permitted, refrain from that which is forbidden, and thereby fulfill the dictum: you are to sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am holy.

May the unparalleled, indescribable kedusha of Maran Sar Ha’Torah, HaRav HaGaon Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt’v’k’l, zy’a and his tzadekes eishes chayil, Ha’Rabbanit Kanievsky a’h, bring shemirah, yeshuos, besuros tovos and the geula asida to our nation and our Land.  

For G-d will comfort Tzion, comfort all her destroyed places, and make her deserts like Eden, and her dried places like the garden of Hashem, gladness, and joy will be found in her, thanks and the voice of song (Yeshayahu 51:3).

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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