Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Road to the Holy

Just prior to Pesach I had the zechut to spend some quality time with Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski. My 16 year old daughter knows how much I esteem him and hold him for a tzadik. She said to me "When you meet the Rabbi ask him what does it take to become a Tzadik?". I did as she requested. Rabbi Twerski looked at me with his large warm knowing eyes and said "Tell your daughter, if I was a tzadik I would be more than glad to share with her what it takes. But alas I am not, so unfortunately I can't help her".

If the way to becoming a tzadik is not simple, the Torah itself gives us directions this week on how to reach another lofty status, that of becoming a kadosh, one who is holy. And the directions are quite surprising.

I would well imagine that to become someone deemed kadosh I need to take on myself stringencies beyond the ordinary. Perhaps I need to wake up early and say tikun chazot. Perhaps I need to fast every Monday and Thursday. Or maybe to become a kadosh I need to go to the mikva each morning before tefilot. In my imagination kedusha is acquired through taking on a new way of life, new practices, a new levush, outer appearance, perhaps grow long payot, wear a larger kipa, or dress as a hasid.

Yet the Torah this week teaches something different. At the outset of the parsha, the Torah tells us "....speak to all the congregation of Israel and say to them kedoshim you shall be, for I Hashem your G-d am Holy". So our response might well, be as my daughter asked Rabbi Twerski, "Ok so how do we become "kadosh"?

The Torah indeed gives more than a challenge. It follows up the challenge immediately with directives. The text continues, in the very next pasuk, " A man needs to fear his mother and father, and observe My Sabbaths, I am Hashem."

From there the Torah goes on to list mitzvah after mitzvah, most of them mizvot lo taaseh, commandments telling us what we should not do. In the language of our sages, commandments that require of us to control our impulses and to "sit tight and do nothing".

The message here is clear. If we want to be kadosh, our focus needs to be on controlling what we do rather than on taking on new practices. "Fear your mother and father" is a command to not show them disrespect, not sit in their seat, nor speak before them. The mitzvah to "honor ones father and mother" another mitzvah entirely calls for doing things on their behalf. The mitzvah to "observe My Shabbatot", the second mitzvah in that first verse after the call for us of to be kedoshim, requires us to desist from work on the Sabbath. It is different from the mitzvah to "remember the Shabbat" which implies creating a special environment for the holy day.

Kedusha is not something we add on to ourselves. Its not acquired. If it was we would be right to imagine the work of attaining it consists of finding new and special devotions. Rather Kedusha already inheres in us. That is why the Torah gave the law of "Kedoshim tehyu" to "all of the congregation of Israel" and not to only a special few. To be kadosh, to fulfill the mitzvah, all we need do is get rid of the impediments, the interference in our lives. All we need do is desist from behaviors deemed against G-d's will, don't work on the Shabbat, don't be disrespectful to your parents, etc . In sitting tight and controlling our impulses to do things against Hashem's will, we create the inner space for the kedusha already inhering within each of us to be manifest.

I believe it was Rebbe Nacham who was once asked "Where does G-d dwell?" He answered,"Wherever man lets Him in."

That is the core dynamic of kedusha. Kedusha belongs to G-d, not us. We can make ourselves a tzadik. We cannot make ourselves a kadosh, no matter how many spiritual practices we take on. All we can do is control our behaviours and leave room for the kedusha already available to become alive in us. That's not a work that invites glory nor does it satisfy the ego. Its not the kind of work that sustains grandiosity. The work of becoming kadosh is a private work. Since it essentially involves not doing, no one is likely to know about it.
Yet no avoda in our lives is likely to be more significant.

Becoming a kadosh is a work that devolves on all of us. Forget about learning Kabbalah as the way. That's a luxury reserved for the few. Forget about taking on new devotions. They may be nice but there are prerequisites. The message of the parsha is that to attain kedusha we need to guard our tongue, our eyes, our ears, our desires. If one is not yet the master of his impulses, if s/he has not yet the ability to sit and do nothing, all the rest of the added-on practices of devotion will mean nothing.

The Torah's call to kedusha is sobering and yet inviting. At one level it demands of us to do the inner work of controlling our behaviors in the service to Hashem, a work that will win no accolades nor recognition. At another level the promise is that kedusha is accessable to each of us without exception, it is waiting for the space we make in ourselves for it to become manifest.

Shabbat Shalom


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