> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Between the Lines

Holy Measures

Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's Torah reading tells of the Exodus from Egypt. In his monumental work, Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe writes that the Jewish people merited to leave Egypt only because they cultivated within themselves a concept of kedusha (holiness).

This is based on the verse: "And Moses took the bones of Yosef" (Exodus 13:19). However the word for "bones" - "atzamot" - is very close to another Hebrew word, "atzmuto," which means "his essence." Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, did not only take the bones of Yosef; he also took with him the essence of Yosef.

What is the essence of Yosef? Yosef is identified with yesod (foundation), which is one of the Ten Sefirot (channels) through which God causes His influence to permeate this world. Each of the sefirot correlates with a part of the body, for example the head, the heart, etc. The sefira of yesod is identified with the reproductive organs.

This is the essence of Yosef HaTzaddik, Yosef the righteous one, who withheld himself from engaging in immorality with the wife of Potiphar and anyone else.

So Moses took with him not just the bones of Yosef, but also the essence of what Yosef represents - which is kedusha, separateness from immorality. Only in the merit of kedusha are the Jewish people redeemed from Egypt.

The commandment to be holy is repeated more often throughout the Torah than any other mitzvah. For example, we find in next week's parsha (Yitro): "And you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). And in the portion after that (Mishpatim): "You shall be holy people unto me"(Exodus 22:30). And we find in parshat Kedoshim: "You shall be holy" (Leviticus 19:2). Later it says: "Sanctify yourselves and be holy for I am the Lord your God. And you shall keep my laws and do them. I am the Lord who sanctifies you" (Leviticus 20:7-8).

The Zohar (3:190b) points out that the word kedusha is mentioned three times in this latter excerpt. The Slonimer Rebbe says that this teaches us that we have to sanctify all three parts of the human being – mind, heart and limbs. Through this will come a rectification of the ten sefirot, which are grouped into three categories. The first group - chochmah (wisdom), bina (understanding) and da'at (knowledge) - corresponds to the mind. The next three - chesed (kindness), gevura (strength) and tiferet (beauty) - correlate with the heart. The final four - netzach (eternity), hod (glory), yesod (foundation) and malchut (sovereignty) - correlate with the limbs.

This sheds light on the verse in Isaiah 6:3: "Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" - "Holy, holy, holy." We have to sanctify all three parts of the human being: mind, heart and limbs.

The verse continues "The Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory." What is the significance of the word "melo" (filled)? It means that we have to fulfill the acronym of the word melo. The mem is for the moach (mind), the lamed is for lev (heart) and the aleph is for eivarim (limbs). That is why holiness is mentioned three times in parshat Kedoshim and Isaiah.

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Another significance of the triple repetition is that they represent the three dimensions in which human beings operate: place, time and self. We have to sanctify every place - our homes, our workplaces, etc. We have to sanctify every moment so that it will productive and constructive. And finally, we ourselves need to be holy.

Obviously, being holy is a very central part of being Jewish. So, the Slonimer Rebbe asks, why isn't it counted as one of the 613 commandants of the Torah? He answers that holiness is not a specific or technical issue that can be addressed by Jewish Law. Rather, it is what being Jewish is all about. If a person is not holy, he is not just lacking in one particular area, his Judaism is deficient as a whole. Holiness is the true measure of a Jew and any lack in this area is a blemish on one's entire being.

The Slonimer Rebbe maintains that just as there is no commandment to "be Jewish," so too "being holy" is so much of the essence, that it cannot be an individual commandment.

As the Torah says: "You are a holy nation unto God your God and God has chosen you" (Deut. 14:2). It is only when we choose to live the lives of a holy people that we merit being the chosen people. Instead of being numbered among the 613 specific commandments, holiness is a "global mitzvah."

According to the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov on this week's parsha, one of the ways we can achieve holiness is by keeping our minds occupied with holy things. Our hearts and limbs generally follow our minds, so we are basically defined by what we think about. When our minds are preoccupied with holy thoughts, then we become holy people. However, if our minds are occupied with unholy thoughts, then our minds and bodies will inevitably follow.

May we all think holy, and be holy, and live up to the innate holiness that lies inside us. Just as our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of their holiness, so we too should be redeemed from our current exile in the merit of our own efforts to be holy.

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