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Rabbi Kalmar's sermon Achrei Mot Kedoshim 8 iyyar 5780

#536 "Be Holy: With What You Got" (May 1/2, 2020)

Adorning the walls of many religious Jews homes are the pictures of great rabbis which serve as an inspiration. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz HaRav, kept pictures in his home as well. He had pictures on his bureau of many great rabbis, from the Vilna Gaon, to his own father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Amidst them he also had a picture of Theodore Herzl, father of the Zionist movement. Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun once asked Rav Tzvi Yehuda – “What is the picture of Herzl doing among the photos of the rabbis?” Herzl, an ardent secularist who frowned upon religion and would have been willing to take a Jewish state in Africa, was not always a hero to those in the religious world. Rav Kook smiled and gave a long reply – which concluded with , “Perhaps some don’t like it, but he was sent by God to begin taking us out of our exile.”

The pasuk at the beginning of Kedoshim tells us that God tells Moshe “דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם קדושים תהיו” tell the congregation of the Jews and say to them – you shall be holy. How is it possible for all of the Jewish people to be holy? In the Mesilat Yesharim, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s (1707-1746) classic work on Jewish ethics, there is a ladder of levels to reach for. Holiness is the highest rung on the ladder, after accomplishing watchfulness, purity, chassidut, humility, fear of sin and many others. It is a level that only a tiny few can reach. How can we all be commanded to be holy?

  1. Shem MiShmuel (Shmuel Bornsztain 1855-1926) says that the commandment of holiness is not limited to only the holiest people around, but that every person has the requirement on their own level, to be holy with the skills and talents that they have. We all have a requirement and really a need to strive for holiness. I believe that now, more than ever, this requirement holds true. We have to find ways to make our quarantined lives holy.

In Houston a pair of teenagers, Mathew and Jeremy Jason found a way to take kippot,
yarmulkes and help the homeless by making them into face masks. Realizing that the homeless had many unique challenges in facing the spread of Covid-19, the brothers leaped into action and collected the 50 or so kippot they could find in their house – saved from Bar Mitzvahs and weddings and such. Then they turned to their synagogue – and collected hundreds more.

The brothers and the rest of the family have produced over 300 of the masks for the homeless and the kippot have been seen walking the city.
They found a way to take what they had to add to holiness in the world.

Rabbi Steven Burg, the CEO of Aish Global and a former chavruta (study partner) of mine sent out an email about the power of positive thinking at this time. And he shared a great graphic that shows two people spray painting messages on walls. One message says – “Just Do Nothing”. The other says “It is Impossible”. Then the two walls are pushed together and the result is – “Just Do It. Nothing is Impossible.”
During this time – we can be tempted to fall into the trap of saying that we should just do nothing. After all we are staying home. And to say that everything is impossible – that we can fall into as well during a time when it seems abundantly clear that we are not in charge of how things happen in the world. But there are those who find ways to overcome those downers and say ‘just do It.’ Nothing is Impossible. Holiness can be accomplished by all.

The Ramban on this verse, Kedoshim Tihihyu, famously says “Kadeish Atzmecha BiMutar Lach” – sanctify yourselves with what is permitted to you. The Ramban meant that one has to sanctify themselves even with the activities that are not of a mitzvah (commandment) or aveirah (sin) nature. But I thought that there is another point to be made here. Kadeish Atzmecha biMutar Lach -with what is permitted to you – to each individual – with their talents and their history and their particular skill set and situation. Sanctify what you can – what you can and what only you can.

Herzl came from a background and a world that did not allow for a Torah religious perspective. When he saw the great Jew hatred of the Western world in Europe, he could have become disillusioned and decided to assimilate completely to escape it, which many of his contemporaries did. Instead he turned to Zionism and he willed a dream that others thought impossible.

We too are facing a time that feels crushing and depressing and suffocating. We can choose to hide and do nothing. Or we can choose to heed God’s call – Kedoshim Tihiyu – make yourselves holy. Use your strengths, use your personality, use your unique God given gifts – and Be Holy!

Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782