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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Holiness, Self-Restraint, and Personal Growth

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on March 28, 1998)
Topics: God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot, Mikdash, Korbanot and Kohanim, Mitzvot, Sefer Vayikra, Shemini, Torah

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Parshat Shmini opens with the culmination of the process of inducting Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. For seven days they had offered the same sacrifices and repeated the same ritual. Now, on the eighth day, a special ceremony was performed to inaugurate the sanctuary and their role in it as priests. When the ceremony was finished, a fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifices on the altar, symbolizing that God’s presence would now dwell in the sanctuary. The people rejoiced, burst into song, and prostrated themselves. Following this, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought a fire-offering that they had not been commanded to bring, and a fire came down from heaven and consumed them. Aaron then mourned the loss of his sons. The parsha ends with the mitzvot concerning kosher and non-kosher animals.

The end of the parsha, the kosher laws, seems incongruous with and irrelevant to the main body of the parsha. What is it doing here? The answer to this perhaps lies in a better understanding of the events at the beginning of the parsha and what they are telling us about the nature of sanctity. The purpose of the process of induction of the priests was to sanctify them for their new role. As priests they would have both the privilege and the responsibility of maintaining a closeness and intimacy with God. They would constantly be in God’s sanctuary serving God, and they would represent God to the people. This is a role that cannot be rushed into. To achieve this high level, to elevate themselves to the point that they were worthy of this new position, they required preparation. “There is no sanctity without preparation,” is a famous saying attributed to Rabbi Soleveitchik, z”l. Similarly, we find that after the giving of the Ten Commandments, when Moses was to commune with God at the top of Mt. Sinai, God first told him to wait in a cloud for seven days to prepare himself for this encounter (see Ex. 24:15-18). Even when God calls upon man to draw close to him, man must first take those necessary steps to prepare and elevate himself for this closeness.

This preparation may often be long and difficult. The seven-day preparation period involved the same detailed sacrifices over and over again. For many this may be too frustrating. The excitement of closeness to God, of a spiritual high, is so enticing that we may be tempted to jump over the steps necessary to achieve it in a proper manner. This was the sin of Aaron’s sons. After God’s fire had come down on the altar, after having that momentary experience of God’s presence, they desired to prolong it. They did not want to return to the mundane. The exuberance of the moment led them to bring a sacrifice that God had not commanded, to use their own devices to connect with the Almighty. Focusing on the momentary high, the intimacy, while abandoning the preparation, the self-sanctification, they achieved a closeness with G-d, but it was a closeness for which they were not ready. Fire did come down again, but this time they, and not the sacrifices, were consumed. They crashed and burned; they could not contain the fire for which they had longed.

This true, though difficult, path to sanctification is the message of the kosher laws. Those laws end with the following verse: “For I am the Lord your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy for I am holy.” (Vayikra: 11:44). What does keeping kosher have to do with holiness? The answer is this: holiness begins with self-sanctification, with personal development and personal growth. And personal growth begins with self-control and self- restraint. The first step to reaching out is pulling in. If we are able to control our most basic appetite, that for food, and utilize it for the service of God, we have begun to make ourselves holy and are on the path toward achieving intimacy with God.

Today, many of us are looking for a spiritual high, for closeness with the Divine. This goal is a worthy and laudatory one, but we must realize that the Torah spells out the way to achieve it. True spirituality, a lasting one and one of deep meaning, cannot be achieved instantaneously. An easy high will be an empty high. Spirituality must be worked at. Through the performance of mitzvot, through character development, through long and hard work we will ultimately be able to achieve an intimacy with the Divine that will be lasting and meaningful.