You Shall Be Holy: Is That Even Possible?
We are commanded, all of us, to be holy. Realistically speaking, is that even remotely possible?
In Messilat Yesharim, the Ramchal presents the primary rungs on the ladder to an elevated relationship with God: Tzaddik, Chassid, and Kadosh. The Tzaddik is the one that scrupulously fulfills all of his halachic obligations. The Chassid is the one that goes above and beyond what is required. The Kadosh is the one that is motivated by a higher Godly inspiration and who merits the type of intense and intimate closeness with God such that every aspect of his life becomes elevated and sanctified.
Each of these rungs of spiritual achievement were present in the life of Yitzchak. Yitzchak was the olah temimah, the completely devoted elevated offering, and within his name there is an allusion to this pathway of spiritual ascension. יצחק. The letter yud (י) is the first letter in the word yashar, meaning straight, or integrity. The letter tzadi (צ) is the first letter in the word tzadik. The letter chet (ח) is the first letter in the word chassid, and the letter kuf (ק) is the first letter in the word kadosh, meaning holy.
Yashrut, integrity, is the foundational basis upon which is built a healthy spiritual life that can eventually reach the loftiest level of kedusha, sanctity. Kedusha, however, is a level only rarely achieved by the greatest of individuals. In Tanach, the only two people who are called kadosh, are Ahron HaKohen and the prophet Elisha.
“God spoke to Moshe saying, ‘Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I am holy, Hashem your God.’”
If holiness is only achieved by the rarest of individuals, how is it that our parsha opens up with a commandment to each and every one of us to be holy? It would seem that this is an unrealistic commandment that condemns the vast majority of Jews to failure.
I Believe in You
The very first thing we learn from this perplexing mitzvah is how much Hashem believes in us and how much confidence He has in our potential. Even if in our own eyes we see ourselves as inadequate and not up to the task, and even if we feel like the attainment of kedusha is hopelessly beyond our reach, God sees things differently. And indeed, it’s Hsashem’s perception that penetrates to the deepest essence of who we are. This can be likened to a person standing and looking out on a barren, rocky stretch of land that holds no hope for producing any type of bounty. Yet, next to him stands a geologist that sees in that same dry, rocky ground, evidence of potential gold deposits. The two see the exact same thing on the surface, it’s what’s beneath the surface that they see very differently.
The mitzvah, the command of “You shall be holy,” is a clear, unequivocal statement that can fortify the self-confidence of each of us. Even if we doubt ourselves, God doesn’t. We need to know that God wouldn’t give us a mitzvah we couldn’t fulfill, and so, if there is a commandment to be holy, then it’s within our reach. Within our reach not just to be tzadikim and chasidim, but to be kedoshim.
This mitzvah, this ultimate vote of confidence, can profoundly fortify our wings; our dreams and our yearning for kedusha. Surely, one of the key elements for success in life is the belief that success is possible. In fact the Zohar tells us that Yosef merited to see his dreams come true because he remembered them. No matter what was happening to him or around him, Yosef never lost sight of his dreams, and never let circumstances undermine his belief that despite everything, the potential for realization and actualization remained in tact.
Mitzvah Creates Reality
This brings us to another profoundly deep understanding, namely, that it is the actual mitzvah itself that implants within us the ability to fulfill the mitzvah. God’s words are far more than just words, and something altogether different than decrees from on high. God’s words literally create realities. It’s God’s words that brought creation into existence, and it’s God’s words, and the mitzvot expressed by his words, that shape us in the deepest, most fundamental way. The words “You shall be holy,” infuse our souls with the ability to access that holiness. The words “You shall be holy,” transform our essence and empower our potential.
It was based on this principle that R. Tzvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook zt’l said that we need to relate to the words “You shall be holy,” not just as a mitzvah, but as the creation of an absolute reality that is alive within us. Therefore, even if you have fallen to the depths, and even if you feel that basic yashar-integrity is beyond you—and certainly tzadik and chassid—then just listen to the Torah as it’s read aloud. Hear the eternal word of the Creator calling out to you; hear the words, kedoshim tihyu, and allow them to rebuild you, to revitalize your heart, and to inspire a fresh belief in the potential for kedusha that simmers within you. Hear those words and leave your constricted consciousness behind. Hear, and see: see yourself through God’s eyes, see your strength and potential and future through God’s eyes, and reach out to Him. Pray with all your heart that the way to kedusha is opened up before you, and that you tap the inner strength that is yours to follow that path. Know, know for sure, that during the Torah reading, at the moment you hear those words, that you are being showered with a light that gives you all you need to cling to God, and to be: To be, kedoshim tihyu.
Finally, R. Tzvi Yehuda zt’l said, don’t make the mistake of thinking that kedusha and real living are at odds; don’ think that kedusha is only for the select few, or that it isn’t even of this world, and that rather it’s connected to olam ha’ba. No! The Torah tells us: (Devarim 4:4)
“And you that cleave to Hashem your God …
… chayim, alive!
… kulchem, all of you!
… hayom, right now!
May we be zoche.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf