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Shabbat start time: 7:51 PM
Shabbat end time: 8:57  PM

Striving for Sanctity

By Rabbi Dr. Richard Ehrlich

The imperative to strive for sanctity – kedusha, the theme that was begun in last week’s Sedrah of Kedoshim, is continued in this week’s Sedrah of Emor. As if in answer to the question how mere mortals are to attain sanctity, the two Sedrahs contain numerous commandments/halachot. It is as if the Torah is teaching us that through the observance of these commandments one can attain sanctity. Looking at the many halachot mentioned in these two portions, one notices that they are diverse and far reaching laws covering practically all areas of Judaism – 114 different mitzvot/commandments altogether. Yet, there is a common thread that runs through all these divergent and disparate mitzvot: all are mitzvot that can be performed or violated privately without anyone else’s knowledge. For example, loving our fellow Jew, having proper weights and measures and not placing a stumbling block before a blind person are all “secret” mitzvot. But even those mitzvot that entail public action involve the secret feelings behind the action. For example, “willingly bringing a sacrifice (where the presence or absence of willingness is the determining factor) or not acting out of vengeful feelings. All of the mitzvot in these Parshiyot exemplify the principle that the hidden emotion or action is the determining factor in the performance of these commandments. 

We can therefore say that the Torah is teaching us that sanctity – kedusha – is attained when we are scrupulous in overcoming our base desires, especially in situations where we can avoid or escape detection by others. To attain sanctity – kedusha, one must show Hashem our willingness to comply even if no one but he will know. A fascinating story in Tractate Avodah Zarah (18A), which occurred during the terrible period when the Roman conquerors outlawed the study of Torah and made it punishable by death, illustrates this very point. The Gemarah tells us that Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma fell ill and was visited by Rabbi Chaninah Ben Teradyon. Rabbi Yosi immediately rebuked and reproved Rabbi Chaninah for endangering his life by publicly gathering people and openly learning Torah with them in defiance of the Roman edict forbidding Torah study. Sensing that he would soon be apprehended and burned at the stake (which he was), Rabbi Chaninah asked Rabbi Yosi whether he could be assured of a place in the world to come. In reply, Rabbi Yosi asked him whether he had done anything that would merit his inclusion in so noble a place. Rabbi Chaninah replied that once money that he had collected for poor people on Purim had inadvertently been mixed up with his own money and he donated all the commingled funds for distribution to avoid any mistake. In that case, said Rabbi Yosi, “may my lot in the next world be like yours.”

This episode needs clarification for two reasons. Firstly, wouldn’t the mitzvah of teaching Torah in defiance of the Roman edict be the greatest achievement that would enable Rabbi Chaninah to achieve life in the world to come? Secondly, why was the act of charity so noteworthy that it guaranteed Rabbi Chaninah life in the world to come?

The answer to both of these questions lies in the difference between the motivations behind our public, as opposed to our private, actions. Very often what motivates us to perform noble deeds is somewhat tainted and impure. Perhaps Rabbi Chaninah might have felt that his position in the community demanded that he risk his life by publicly teaching Torah. Perhaps he wished to die a martyr as an example to the Jewish community of what must be done in times of oppression. One can never know the true motivations when analyzing an act of public heroism. However, for that one simple act of charity that Rabbi Chaninah had performed years ago, when he nobly and secretly acted charitably, he attained a measure of sanctity – kedusha, that enabled him to obtain a place in the world to come. That act of charity was truly heroic, untainted and purely motivated. 

In conclusion, it is clear that a person shows his true worth and reaches supreme heights, not necessarily because of the public acts performed, but rather through the private acts that oftentimes are trampled upon and ignored. Let us hope that as we near the holiday of Shavuos, when we re-accept the Torah, that we remember that the Torah encompasses many laws both small and large, public and private, and that the mundane and everyday mitzvot can sometimes reap great benefits in our quest for kedusha.


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