“You shall be holy, for I am holy, HaShem your G-d… You shall sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am HaShem your G-d” [19:2, 20:7]
Immediately after telling us to “be holy,” G-d instructs us to fear our parents, guard the Sabbath, avoid idolatry, and more. The implied lesson is then made explicit: “sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy.” Holiness doesn’t happen by accident. We make it happen through our study and our actions.
Holiness isn’t easy, either. Moral behavior requires restraint when we want to fulfill our desires. Some would prefer to avoid the necessary study and effort, and some will even attempt to convince you that trying is a waste of time.
First, they trot out examples of supposedly moral individuals who, despite their studies, engaged in immoral behavior. Then, extrapolating wildly, they tell you that this proves that the studies themselves are of no benefit.
To understand the fallaciousness of this approach, let us take a different example. Is it true that anyone who plays basketball on a regular basis will become a Michael Jordan, or achieve professional talent? We know that most do not. But it would be ridiculous to then conclude that it is all a matter of natural ability, and practice causes no improvement.
Not every physicist becomes Albert Einstein, and not every pre-med becomes a capable surgeon, but only after years of study and practice is it even possible.
So if someone reputed to have studied the Jewish laws against gossip should ever stumble in this area, can we argue that someone who studies these laws daily is just as likely to gossip as anyone else? To say that is to imagine that moral behavior is somehow different and distinct from every other area of life.
The Torah tells us otherwise. It is no different: we must study and practice in order to grow. “Sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy.” And the Torah tells us that this is our obligation as Jews.
The following story illustrates what a person can become, if he will only make the attempt — and what he can accomplish.
My wife’s grandfather, Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg zt”l, studied and practiced holiness every day. Congregation Beth Abraham, which he founded here in Baltimore, still commemorates his yahrtzeit on the 27th of Nissan. This year, Dr. Aaron Siegman provided this anecdote.
The Rav was sitting out on his porch, studying one evening, in the days when the synagogue and his home were the same building. An elderly man walked by, and then paused. He asked Rabbi Hertzberg, “how much are tickets for the High Holy Days?”
“Here,” replied the Rabbi, “we have three types of tickets. For those who can afford it, they pay what they want. For those who cannot afford it, they are welcome to join us anyway. And for those who not only cannot afford it, but do not have enough to ‘make Yom Tov’ [prepare the holiday meals], we give them tickets, and we give them something with which to ‘make Yom Tov.'”
On Yom Kippur morning, this man came to the synagogue for prayers. And when they recessed in the afternoon, he asked permission of the Rabbi to address the congregation.
He introduced himself to the assembled — who reacted with some surprise, for his name was well-known. He then said that he came over alone from Minsk, Poland, as a boy of 14. He got off the ship on the eve of Yom Kippur, and wandered the streets that day before finding a synagogue in time for Kol Nidrei.
At the synagogue entrance, he was stopped by a guard who asked for his ticket. When he said that he had none, the guard called the Gabbai of the synagogue, to whom the boy explained his situation.
“I’m sorry,” said the Gabbai. “If you do not have a ticket, you cannot pray here.”
“For fifty years,” concluded the man, “I have not entered a synagogue. Only your Rebbe made it possible for me to return.”
Rabbi Hertzberg made it look easy, but it’s not. It takes a great deal of effort — effort which will surely be blessed with success. “Sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy.”
Rabbi Yaakov Menken