Separation and Sanctity


Shira Smiles shiur – 2015 5775

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            The Jewish nation is different from other nations. We are a nation separate and sanctified unto God. The verse in Kedoshim states this very clearly: “You shall be holy for Me, for I Hashem am holy; and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.” Rashi’s clarification initially seems quite straightforward, yet upon closer scrutiny, raises more questions. Rashi presents two subjects for the verb “to be Mine”. First, simply Bnei Yisroel, you will be Mine. Secondly, the converse, the separation will make you Mine. Yet Rashi continues. He introduces the evil Nebuchadnezzer as a warning – if you will not be Mine, you will belong to Nebuchadnezzer and his cohorts. What does that mean? Rashi then continues with citing Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah who taught that one should admit to enjoying eating pig but insist on refraining from this pleasure because Hashem so commanded me as a means of separating myself from the other nations.

The simplest explanation for Rashi’s dual expansion on the verse is that we can develop our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu in two ways, out of fear or out of love. We can obey Hashem’s will and be His nation out of fear of the consequences, of Nebuchadnezzer swooping down on us to punish us, or we can foster our relationship with Hashem through love, through refraining from displeasing Him, as one would refrain from doing things that would displease one’s spouse.

Nevertheless, the questions remain of why we need to achieve such sanctity, why the separation is necessary, and how do we accomplish the separation that will lead to the goal.

Let us begin our discussion by noting that all matter is divided into various categories, mineral, vegetable, animal and man. Rabbi Grosbard then quotes the Kuzari  that there is an additional category, the Jew. Each creation serves a purpose on earth, and one cannot compare the purpose of a lion to that of a dandelion, for example. So too the purpose of the Jew is different from that of the rest of mankind. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on the mission of the Jew in hisNineteen Letters and his editor, Rabbi Elias, further explicates these ideas.

The purpose and mission of Bnei Yisroel is to bring knowledge of God as the foundation of everything to all the nations of the world, that He created the world out of love, and that the world was created to do His will. To do so, it must be obvious that the Jews’ existence is based solely on God’s will. Therefore Bnei Yisroel cannot rely on wealth, or on military prowess or political strategy. Bnei Yisroel must remain separate if they are to convey this message to the world. They must have come into existence in a way different from the natural order and must continue to exist unnaturally. We are here not as a rejection of other nations but as a service to them. As such, we cannot be mingled with the other nations and become assimilated.  We must remain distinct. The laws of the Torah are there to guard us from such assimilation. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes, we are the captain of the ship of the world with special obligations, while others are chefs and passengers with their own obligations.

Therefore everything we do in our daily lives must be different from the ways of the rest of the world and thereby sanctified, writes Rabbi Schrage Grosbard. The whole world farms, for example, but only we leave the corners of the field and individual stalks for the poor to gather. We begin our day with sanctity and prayer, and end our day with prayer, and everything we do between those two must bear the stamp of doing God’s will. As Rabbi Gedalya Schorr writes, every physical act should remind us of our Source and our mission so that our physical existence becomes elevated. Then, through pride in our differences from the world around us and in our service to Hashem, we can bring others to also recognize Hashem.

Rabbi Moshe Scheinerman points to a recurring theme in all of Tanach. We are constantly reminded to keep ourselves separate from the other nations lest we learn from them and become like them. Our actions and words must constantly create sanctity within the world. Rabbi Scheinerman quotes the Beis Haleci who quotes the Havdalah service at the end of Shabbos, the Havdalah which in itself means separation. Hashem separates the sacred from the secular, light from darkness, Israel from the Nations as well as the seventh day from the six days of creation. If we do not create thekiddush, sanctification, through living Torah lives and distinguishing ourselves through pride, warns Rabbi Scheinerman, the world will create havdalah, a more painful separation between Bnei Yisroel and the other nations.

This is perhaps what Rashi was alluding to when he introduced Nebuchadnezzer into an explanation of the verse, writes Rabbi Sternbach in Taam Vodaat, for it was Nebuchadnezzer who destroyed our first Beit Hamikdosh when we left God’s ways and sent us into exile.

When Hashem offered us the Torah, we immediately lovingly accepted it with its 613 commandments and we understood that by our acceptance, we would be separating ourselves from the rest of the world who only needed to observe seven commandments. (This is not necessarily easy for them either, which is why we have our mission.) However, why was it then necessary to hold a mountain poised over our heads as if to force us to accept the Torah which we had already embraced, asks Rabbi Sternbach. Citing the Maharal, Rabbi Sternbach explains that there is a difference between desire and obligation. True, we willingly accepted the Torah after Hashem redeemed us from Egypt, but that desire might fade with time. Hashem wanted us to understand that even when the desire waned, we still needed to observe the commandments and keep ourselves separate from the practices of the surrounding nations.

When Hashem separated us from the other nations and gave us our mission, He simultaneously gave us the responsibility of maintaining that separation so that we could fulfill our mission to the other nations, contends Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai. How are we to do that? We are to keep other distractions away, those activities and objects from foreign cultures that would make Hashem “uncomfortable” in our homes, much like pictures of old boyfriends would make a new husband uncomfortable in the home he builds with his wife. As Rabbi Pincus writes, it is up to us to fill our homes with kedushah, with holiness.

But it is not just our homes that must remain holy. Rabbi Scheinerman notes that gentiles often have free time. They fill their leisure with fun and games. In contrast, the Jew has no free time. When he finishes his work, he learns Torah, attends classes, or becomes involved in chessedand community service. A Jew’s “down time” is Shabbat and Yom Tov when time itself is sanctified through Kiddush, zemiroth and learning, when our physical lives, our meals and our rest are elevated to a level of service to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

It is not that others don’t have the potential for spiritual greatness. Nebuchadnezzer himself sang a magnificent ode that rivals the Psalms when Chanaya, Mishoel and Azarya were release unharmed from the fiery furnace. However, in spite of this great potential, he was never able to cross over and accept the sovereignty of the King of kings over himself, writes the Chasam Sofer. On that level, his spirituality remains egocentric rather than Deicentric. Had he put his ego aside, he would not continue to commit the atrocities he did.

Rabbi Egbi in Chochmat Hamatzpun explains that spirituality only remains holy when it is concretized with one’s actions and behavior in the world, how we interact with the public, in business, and in the privacy of our homes. If you maintain your holiness in seclusion and see it only in yourself rather than manifest in every human being and throughout the world, you are no better than Nebuchadnezzer!

To support his point, Rabbi Egbi makes an interesting observation. On Succoth we hold four different species together and make a blessing over them. According to tradition, the etrogrepresents the heart while the lulav represents the spine. Yet the blessing is recited over the lulav which determines outward action rather than over the etrog which remains internal. Our actions must create that separation and elevate us. As Rabbi Noach Orloweck writes in Turning Ideas into Action, while emotion may spur us to action, one must control that emotion with the intellect, developing a strong inner reality that will enable us to focus our actions toward appropriate goals.

This idea can explain why Hashem chose Avraham Avinu for this exalted mission writes Rabbi Egbi. Certainly there were other great descendents of Noach, his son Shem and great grandson Ever. They studied Torah and established a Yeshiva. But they remained in their yeshiva and waited for others to come to them. Avraham, on the other hand, went out into the world, interacted with others, and through his actions tried to bring mankind closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu and reveal God’s light.

Let us strive to carry on that exalted mission by recognizing our uniqueness as a special blessing, wearing it with pride, and through our interactions with others, sanctify God’s name in the world so that all will see us as His righteous representatives and bless Him.