Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, also known as the Rashbam, was one of the greatest Pashtanim in our tradition. The brother of the Rivam and Rebbeinu Tam and the grandson of Rashi, the Rashbam was not only respected for his creative interpretations of the Tankah and the Talmud, but he was also legendary for his great piety. In fact, the Rashbam was so pious, he was so holy, that he refused to look at anything that would distract him from thinking about Torah. Whenever he would walk through the streets, the Rashbam would always cover his eyes or look down at the ground, so as to avoid seeing anything unholy. One day, as he was walking through the busy village square, his eyes fixed on the ground, the Rashbam began walking up a plank, not knowing that the plank led to the bed of a wagon which was being pulled by an ox and a donkey in tandem, which a biblical prohibition! Just as the Rashbam was about to enter the wagon, a fellow Jew grabbed him. "What were you thinking?" the Jew cried, "You are so learned and so holy, how could you have almost violated an Issur D'oraita, a biblical prohibition?" Flustered but grateful for the man's help, the Rashbam said, "I think that from now on, I need to look where I'm going."
What I love about this story is that it not only humanizes a giant of Torah in a slightly humorous way, but it also addresses a very important question which is so central to Judaism and living a Jewish life. And that question is, "How does one achieve kedusha, holiness? How can one, how does one, live a holy life?" When the Torah tells us, "You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Vayikra 19:2), what does that mean? How is this supposed to be realized and lived? According to Rashi, based on the Sifra, "You shall be holy," means, “You shall be removed from forbidden sexual relations, and from sin.” Based on this Rashi, it seems that holiness is achieved by distancing oneself from worldly activities, especially those activities that take advantage of the most vulnerable aspects of our humanity. To be holy is to be separate, to be removed. To be holy means to avoid the messiness of society, of human relationships, it means to abstain from anything that could tempt or challenge our religious devotion. To be holy means to walk with our heads down and our eyes on the ground. In other words, it's better to be safe than sorry. By isolating ourselves from the ugliness of the world, by associating only with like-minded people, by staying within the boundaries of our comfort-zones, we can ensure our holiness. But is this really the way? I know a lot of rabbis and chaplains who might respectfully disagree with this. So, if isolating one's self from challenges is not the way to attain holiness, what is?
According to Rav Hirsch in his Commentary on Vayikra, "Kedusha, being holy, means to be absolutely ready for all that is good. It presupposes that our whole being is in such a state of being penetrated by morality, that its opposite, the inclination to evil, finds no longer any place therein. Rashi and others, who explain the demand 'You shall be holy' as 'You shall be removed,' stress just the negative idea of the conception of kedusha. At the same time, though, it indicates the nature of the work that every one of us who would strive for the lofty goal of kedusha...must do on ourselves. Kedusha" Rav Hirsch writes, "is the product of the completest mastery by the God-like free-willed human being over all our forces and natural tendencies, with all of the allurements and inclinations associated with them, and placing them at the disposal of God's Will. The mastery over one's self, the highest possible art which human beings can practice, does not consist of neglecting, curtailing, killing, or doing away with any of one's natural tendencies...They are all given to us for beneficial purposes to accomplish God's Will on earth...In exercising our power of restraint and self-control in things which are permitted but are related to the forbidden, we can gain mastery of our inclinations, and make all of our powers and tendencies subservient to the pure fulfillment of the Will of God. That is the work that everybody is called on to do, all of us, according to our own individual situation. It is work that is done quietly, silently, known to no one but us, on our own inner-selves. 'Removal,'" says Rav Hirsch, "is not yet kedusha, but it is a preliminary stage towards it."
In other words, removal, separation is not the essence of kedusha, it is instead a prerequisite for it. By learning how we can control and channel our drives and desires for the good, by using our free will to transcend our baser inclinations and instincts in order to do what is moral instead of what is easy, to do what is just instead of what feels good, we can move freely in the world unafraid. Kedusha, living a holy life, means that we have to realize our own potential to be holy.
But here's the thing: We can only realize how holy we can become if we challenge ourselves, if we push the limits of our comfort-zones, if we open our eyes in order to see where we're going. As Rabbi Menachem Genack puts it, "We can only achieve holiness within the context of society, involved and engaged with the community. Human holiness, Jewish holiness, must be achieved not through negation, but through affirmation; not through isolation, but through engagement; not by abjuring the world and adopting a monastic life, but by the riskier approach of confronting the world and its imperfections. This approach chances failure, but it brings us closer to the path of redemption." Unlike the Rashbam, a brilliant scholar, but who hid from the messiness of reality only to nearly violate the very Torah he cherished more than anything, we should realize that if we believe enough in ourselves to be in command of ourselves, to use the free will and the will power God has given to each and every one of us, we can help perfect a broken world because we can see, with eyes wide open, those aspects of the world that need to be repaired.
The fact that the Rashbam nearly violated a Torah law because he refused to look at the world around him, means that in order to fulfill the Torah, we need to look at the world around us, because it is in this world that holiness can be achieved. As Rav Soloveitchik notes in his Halakhic Man, "Holiness does not wink at us from 'beyond' like some mysterious star that sparkles in the distant heavens, but appears in our actual, very real lives...Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood...The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is man as creator. When God created the world, He provided an opportunity for the work of His hands -man-to participate in His creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal man could repair its flaws and perfect it."
Yes, "You shall be holy." The Hebrew word, "you shall be," indicates that this commandment is not meant for one moment, but for all time. It is a commandment which requires us to constantly be involved in the process of becoming. The holiness we have achieved in our lives last year cannot be the same this year – we must always be moving, always evolving, developing, deepening our understanding of our own ability to become holy. As partners with God in creation, we all have the ability to perfect the imperfect, to repair the broken and redeem the lost. We can do it. We all have this quality, this power inside of us. But we must engage the world, we must confront reality, warts and all, if we really want to be as holy as we can be, and by reaching out and engaging the world, we can inspire others to reach for kedusha as well. As the saying goes, "You can't inspire others unless you're inspired.” And you can't make others holy unless you feel holy."
And so, my bracha for us all is that we do not shy away from the ugly, that we do not hide our eyes from seeing brokenness. In order to heal, we must be able to see what and who needs healing. In order to live in this world, we must not flee from it, we must engage it. In order to perfect, we must understand what is imperfect. This is the harder way, but it is the Jewish way. May we always look for areas in our lives, our relationships and in our community that need improvement, and if we commit ourselves to doing that holy work, on ourselves and for others, then we can all live the mitzvah of constantly working towards becoming holy. May we never fail to recognize the holiness of our beings and our great spiritual capacities to make others holy as well. May we always seek holy challenges and embrace holy callings. May we always rise in holiness and remember to engage those challenges and callings with eyes wide open, so that we can see where we're going, and hopefully, guide others towards on the path of becoming holy as well.