Society's Significance

 Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            When Moshe received word from Hashem, he was told to transmit those words and directions to Bnei Yisroel. The standard procedure involved a certain protocol. Moshe would begin by teaching Aharon, Then Moshe would teach Aharon’s sons as Aharon remained beside him. While all These remained with Moshe, Moshe would then transmit the information to the elders who would finally transmit God’s word to all of Bnei Yisroel. Here Hashem digresses from this protocol. Hashem commands Moshe to “speak to the entire assembly of Bnei Yisroel and say to them: you shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your God.” Why did Hashem want all the people to be gathered together at once to hear these words? What was different about this message from the others that gave it such added significance?

            Rashi maintains that the significance of this section is that most of the substance of Torah is contained herein. Ramban takes a larger view. He believes that the important message here is kedoshim tihiyu/you shall be holy...” The command to be holy goes beyond mere mitzvah observance or Torah prohibition. One can be a degenerate while still maintaining the letter of Torah law. One can be a glutton for food, money or pleasure. One can daven three times a day, mouthing the words but thinking about the next business deal or great meal. The main principle of the Torah is to strive to be holy, writes the Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Friedlander z”l. All the rest are details and examples of how to achieve holiness. All the other mitzvoth, writes the Sefas Emes, are predicated on the principle of being holy.

            And that is why it was necessary for everyone, man, woman and child, to be here and listen to this command. Just as each of us was created in the image of God, so must we all strive to be holy, as He Himself is holy. No one can exempt himself from fulfilling this mitzvah because he thinks himself unworthy, just a “regular guy”. He too was created in the image of God, explains the Ohel Moshe. Further, adds Rabbi Grosbard z”l in Daas Schrage, When Hashem commands us to be holy, He wants us to imbue our normal, daily lives and activities with a sense of sanctity. We are not asked to eschew the world and its pleasures. We are, however, asked to impart a sense of holiness in all that we do. We must eat so that we can maintain our health and continue to serve Hashem, we can even enjoy some dessert, but that does not mean we should stuff ourselves with every delicacy on the smorgasbord. Exercise is important, but is showing off our abs or our curves our focus, or is maintaining our health our focus? We should remember Hashem and our purpose in all we do. In Pirkei Avot, we find, that if three people eat together and no Torah is spoken at the table, it is as if they are eating from pagan altars, for, instead of elevating the physical, they are severing the relationship between the physical and the spiritual world. Kedoshim tihiyu is a lifelong challenge.

            The Jewish holy man is not someone who recluses himself from the physicality of the world, but one who lives in the physical world and elevates it to sanctity, writes Rabbi Sternbach. One should enjoy delectable foods on Shabbat and yom tov, but understand that with this food, or elegant clothing, he is honoring the sanctity of the day. One who is a glutton for his own pleasure is denying Hashem and His connection to the world He created.

            How can one attempt to achieve sanctity? The Tosher Rebbe z”l in Avodat Avodahsuggests we put every one of our proposed actions to a test. If I do this, will it bring Hashem closer to my home, will my relationship with Hashem become stronger or weaker? The only way to create space for Hakodosh Boruch Hu to enter is by limiting our focus on the physical pleasures of the world. Contrary to so much of Western culture, acquisition of all the latest and greatest products does not create true happiness. Again, that does not mean we deny ourselves everything physical. What it does mean, explains Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, is that we control our desires rather than have them control us.

            Control of one’s physical environment to elevate it is a lifelong process and is achieved step by step, adds Rabbi Friedlander z”l. We should not become discouraged if we failed in one attempt, for we usually have another opportunity. For example, if we didn’t have a Dvar Torah at our Shabbos table last week, we can still have one this week, or the next. Each small step is a victory. Every time we control our desire, we are taking a step toward holiness.

            Rabbi Wolbe z”l presents an interesting analogy to help us better understand how controlling our desires gets us closer to holiness. The yetzer horo exerts a very strong magnetic field. Every craving and overwhelming desire is an emission from that force. The corresponding spiritual force of our mind and neshamah is not as powerful. Each time we resist those strong, physical urges, we move further away from the influence of the yetzer horo.  As we move further away from the negative energy field, we are moving closer to the positive energy field and allowing it to influence us, to bring us closer to God. Holiness must begin with sur meira/moving away from evil.

            But there must also be a component of aseh tov/do good, adds Rav Zaidel Epsteinz”l in Letitcha Elyon. Much like medicine, every mitzvah is a way of elevating oneself, even if we do not understand how it works.

            But giving this mitzvah with all the community present has implications not just for the individual, but also for the community. Rabbi Druck notes that a unified group can achieve greater sanctity than a single individual. The Netivot Shalom builds on this idea. It is almost impossible for an individual to achieve holiness on his own. Kedushah is a gift, and an individual cannot merit this gift on his own. With the power of the merits within the entire group, writes the Slonimer Rebbe z”l, the holiness can be achieved. Therefore, it was necessary to transmit this mitzvah in hakhel, in an assembly of all of Bnei Yisroel. As Rashi wrote, all the elements of the Torah are suspended within it. “It” could refer to the group, or to holiness. In both these regards, notes Rav Belsky zt”l, this was a mini reenactment of the Revelation at Sinai when the Ten Commandments, themselves, incorporating all of Torah, was transmitted to the entire people. As the Chasam Sofer says, since many of the mitzvoth can be observed only within a particular group, men or women, kohanim, land owners, etc, only through the entire nation can all the Torah be observed and full sanctity be achieved.

            Most of the mitzvoth enumerated in this Parsha are mitzvoth between man and his fellow man, interpersonal mitzvoth. Rabbi Zaks z”l explains in Menachem Zion that most people are more stringent in laws they consider “religious” laws, those between man and God, than they are about the interpersonal laws. This, says Rav Zaks z”l, is a mistake. This parsha is meant to teach us that The Torah is really based on man’s interaction with his fellow man.

            Rabbi Kofman z’l notes that it’s not enough for each individual to be personally involved in holiness, or even for the entire people to be involved in holiness. It is important to actually make the connection between the observance of a mitzvah to both Hakodosh Boruch Hu and to all of Bnei Yisroel. There are people who have the custom to recite a line to these effect before the observance of any mitzvah. Many have the custom of reciting this intention throughout the Seder, befroe each of its accompanying mitzvoth, before each cup of wine, before eating the bitter herbs, etc.

            But a kahal/tzibur/community is not created simply because people live together in one area. A tzibur maintains common values and does not tolerate others, writes Rabbi Belsky zt”l in Einei Yisroel. That’s why the mitzvoth here are written in the plural. Et Shabtotai tishmoru/You (plural) keep and anticipate My Sabbaths. When the preparations for Shabbat are palpable within a community, each individual within the community feels the excitement and anticipates the joy of Shabbat. Alternately, a community which turns a blind eye to certain sins such as dishonesty in business, perpetuates such sins and moves the entire community away from holiness. The entire community is responsible for the tenor of holiness within that community.

            We also create the kedushah of a tzibur when we take on the cares and challenges of individuals within the community, adds Rebetzin Smiles. If we have unemployed people, do we as a community network to find them employment, or personally have a job for them besides trying to help them financially. Do we pray for the needs of all others in our community, financial, physical and mental/emotional health, for our singles to find a shidduch? Does the young orphan have a “father” who will take him under his wing and sit with him in shul? We become a tzibur worthy of kedushah by taking control of ourselves and additionally taking responsibility for the welfare, physical and spiritual, of our neighbors. We strive for the gift of kedushah. May we be worthy of it.