HASHEM spoke to Moshe saying, “Speak to the entire assembly of the Children
of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, HASHEM, your
G-d.”” (Vayikra 19:1)
Be Holy! Great! How do you “be holy”? What’s holy? Where do I begin? What’s
required to be holy? These are not easy questions but they are screaming out
for answers. Success and failure in life are hinging on our response to this
mandate to become holy! How do I know when I’ve achieved holiness?
There is a rule I have discovered! Anything take out of context will tend to
be misunderstood! Stated affirmatively: “Something seen in its proper
context is more easily understood!
On Shabbos, for a few weeks in the year, I am treated, as I stroll to and
from Shul to watching some Pakistani fellows playing cricket. It looks like
baseball but it aint. The guy bowls overhand with a stiff arm instead of
just throwing it as a pitcher would, and then anther chap with a wide bat
like a beaver’s tail takes a stiff armed swing in an awkward fashion. I’m
left with too many questions.
Are they not allowed to bend their elbows? Do they not know how to hit and
pitch properly? When he hits the ball nobody runs. Is this practice?
Admittedly I’m lost! I don’t know the rules and watching from afar once a
week for so many years has not made me any wiser when it comes to cricket.
I’m sure they too are a little mystified about me walking around on a sunny
day with bar codes on my shoulders like I just escaped from Sam’s Club!
What is the context of this general admonition to “be holy”. In “Acharei Mos
we start out with the laws of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest going into
the Holy of Holies on the highest of the holy days. He alone is allowed on
that day alone to go into a place where no man can go! The Kohen is like the
astronaut who reaches the moon while the entire nation celebrates his
accomplishment. This was not just for any man! No! The Kohen Gadol had to be
worthy to survive the experience. During the 420 years of the Second Temple
more than 300 Kohen Gadolim had to be dragged out and one entered
successfully for 80 years. It really was a celebration of high achievement.
At the end of that Portion we are reading about the lowest of the low
behavior. Unspeakable practices are listed and cautioned about as if anyone
normal needs to be chased away from actions that are universally taboo and
intrinsically despicable. However, just like the Kohen Gadol in the opposite
direction, a few decrepit individuals and maybe more than we know are
flirting with danger.
What we have outlined before our very eyes is a spectrum of the greatest and
the worst of human potential. Like Yaakov Avinu’s ladder which stretched
from the earth to the heavens, this is the range of humanity, of every man!
In Yaakov’s dream angels of G-d were going up and down but interestingly
none were parked and standing in one place. Either they were going up or
they were going down!
When my wife left seminary in Israel to return to the United States the
Rabbi warned the girls to learn five minutes each day! He told them, “A bird
that stops flapping its wings does not remain in the same place!” At a
Yeshiva dinner years ago an old friend I had not seen for many years told
me, “Label, you are exactly the same as you were 25 years ago!” I took it as
a complement and I told him, “You have no idea how hard work is required
just to remain the same!”
In that context, when we understand how low a person can fall and at the
same time how high a person can climb we realize that we are faced with a
dramatic choice. “Choose life” like “be holy” is not just an admonition but
rather it’s an invitation to climb upward. Holiness is a direction on the
ladder of life. It’s no wonder the verse that calls out for holiness is
crowned with the words, “for holy am I, HASHEM, your G-d.” How does that
help? Topping that ladder is HASHEM like an Abba encouraging His children