The war against Covid-19 has caused us to hone basic life skills like self-control and restraint to a fighting edge.
This does not appear to have been such a priority just a few months ago. In the world before the onset of Covid-19, the entitled would sometimes gleefully proclaim, the only rule was there were no rules. Efforts made to establish appropriate boundaries and the need dutifully to respect them was often viewed as anachronistic. Who would have believed they would be so critical to survival? It is no coincidence that these are also tools for achieving refinement and true holiness.
The Bible urges us to be holy. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains achieving holiness is all about mastery of our powers and natural tendencies and sublimating them to the higher purpose of emulating G-d’s ways. He posits that these character traits, from the most spiritual to the most sensual, are not inherently bad or good. It is all about how they are applied in practice, both in terms of fostering positive goals and not violating limits designed to prevent negative outcomes.
Rabbi Hirsch agrees with Nachmanides that the existential state of being holy is achieved by acting judiciously and with restraint in the realm of what is otherwise permitted and not already expressly prohibited. Thus, it’s not about avoiding consumption of non-kosher food or engaging in prohibited relationships, which are expressly forbidden. Rather, as Nachmanides notes, it relates to not being gluttonous when eating kosher foods, lecherous with a spouse or guzzling kosher wine. Similarly, even though the Bible does not expressly prohibit using vulgar language, holiness requires avoiding such abusive speech.
Being holy is all about, in effect, separating from overindulgence in or abuse of those things that are otherwise permissible, by establishing boundaries that honor the spirit, not just the letter of the law. The essence of being holy is not so much about doing something in particular; rather, it is about what should not be done. It’s about exercising restraint. Nachmanides encapsulates this concept in a pithy phrase loosely translated, as a person should not be ‘a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah’.
Rabbeinu Bachya fleshes out Nachmanides’ thesis on achieving holiness in practice, by relating it visually to four basic areas of human anatomy. Thus, he equates control of the mouth as the means of curtailing gluttonous consumption. It is the tongue that must be held in check to avoid uttering profanity or suggestive and other unseemly speech. Similarly, use of the private parts is to be limited, because overindulgence in intimate relations can profane even what would otherwise be a Mitzvah between
Rav Yonatan Eybeshitz expresses concern about the tendency to take this kind of a philosophical approach to an extreme and pursue a fully monastic existence. Our role in this world is neither to deny and wholly abstain from the physical nor to be devoted only to the spiritual and be removed entirely from society and worldly activity. A true and complete servant of G-d conducts his or her business and social affairs in a manner pleasing to G-d and other people and is an active and positive force in societal affairs. It is not proper to disdain others and worldly activities. After all, if everyone became a hermit monk then the world and natural order could not be sustained. He emphasizes the ethic of combining Torah and worldly activity that is the hallmark of our traditional approach to life.
In this regard, reference might be made to Maimonides, who prescribes an appropriate regimen designed to preserve the spiritual and physical health of a person. It is based on his holistic approach that includes treating not only the mind and body but also the soul, because they are each vital components in a symbiotic relationship. His prescription includes vigorous exercise, other physical activity and eating healthy. He even suggests a regular visit to the spa, but not more frequently than once a week. He cautions against lethargy, overindulging in intimate relations and overeating. His approach may be summarized as: The good life is about respecting boundaries and following the middle path. Eat healthy and don’t overeat to live well; living to eat is irresponsible.
In striking contrast to the art of becoming holy outlined above, Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, followed another path; a disastrous course of conduct that led to their untimely and spectacular demise. The Midrash and Talmud provide a number of explanations for why this occurred. These include an unsanctioned entry into the innermost holy precincts of the Tabernacle; bringing an unauthorized ritual offering; firing it from an outside source; not consulting with their father Aaron or uncle Moses, who were in charge, before engaging in this inappropriate conduct; not consulting with each other; drinking an alcoholic beverage on the job; not being properly attired; not washing their hands and feet, as required, in advance of performing a Temple ritual; not being married; not having children; eating and partying below Mount Sinai, even as they perceived the Divine Presence, while Moses was receiving the Torah from G-d; and wondering out loud when Aaron and Moses would pass away so that they could replace them and take over their leadership roles. They also compounded their errors by engaging in the unsanctioned Temple ritual solely for their own personal benefit and not in a representative capacity for the benefit of the entire community.
They looked for holiness in all the wrong places. Indeed, it might well be said that holiness can’t be found, because it has no precise location. It’s also not linked to a particular job or function. Being a Kohen, entering the holy precincts of the Temple to officiate and bring holy sacrifices, wearing the holy garments set aside for these purposes and ritually washing do not automatically transform the individual into a holy person. It must be earned as outlined above through self-discipline and restraint. The fact that they violated the rules in the process, to benefit only themselves personally, is a source of profanation rather than sanctification. It begs the question of what caused them to make such fatal errors in judgment?
The Midrash is extremely critical in its analysis of their character flaws. It discusses how they were arrogant, entitled, self-indulgent, haughty and selfish. It notes they didn’t marry because they didn’t view anyone as a worthy match. They didn’t respect their father Aaron or Moses and felt they were better than them. Hence, they didn’t feel the need to consult with them prior to taking their misguided and fateful action. Indeed, they didn’t even caucus first. Each acted impulsively, with reckless abandon and without prior consultation with the other. They also lacked any concern for established norms or boundaries. They may otherwise have had many redeeming qualities and been slated for a brilliant future. Nevertheless, their hubris and sanctimonious behavior was inexcusable and disqualifying.
The secret to real holiness is genuine self-control and restraint, including establishing appropriate boundaries and respecting them. It is much easier to talk about it and be sanctimonious than achieve holiness in practice. Regulating our patterns of behavior is an arduous process that takes time and unrelenting effort. However, it is well worth it, because through that process we become refined individuals and truly sanctified.
Exercising self-control and restraint can make us stronger physically, mentally and spiritually. May G-d reward all of our noble efforts to achieve true holiness with success and keep us safe and well.
Leonard Grunstein, retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva Univ. and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and more..