Parshotim Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

gleaners in a wheat field

The goal of Mussar is holiness – Kedoshim is a critical text from a Mussar perspective. While Mussar shares and borrows techniques with non-religious self-help, it seeks a Jewish religious goal, it has a directionality drawn from the Torah. The central core of this is “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Holiness as a middah is the constellation of sensitivity, emotional intelligence, practical knowledge, self-insight and ability to seek meaning that enables someone “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Leviticus (19:2)
You should be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

In the Jewish tradition, there are different understandings of holiness. For Maimonides, holiness is the outcome of keeping the system of mitzvot, while for Rashi it is more specifically the product of not violating the rules of proper sexual behavior. Yet other commentators point to the social and ethical content of chapter 19, and see holiness as acting for the good of our community. Ramban views holiness as an aspiration towards Godliness, of perfecting ourselves beyond simple obedience to rules.

How do you understand the differences between these different ideas of holiness? In what ways are they related?

What might it mean to aspire to Godliness, or to seek to sanctify all of our actions? What does it mean concretely?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
When a person resists his desires, he draws himself away from the “pull” of the yetzer hara, and is no longer under the influence of its magnetic field. This enables him to enter the field of his neshamah and seichel, which is the core of kedushah.

Neshama is the part of our soul that has awareness of, or connection to God, and is distinguished from the animal soul (or mind) composed of physical drives. Combining neshama and seichel suggests our rational intellect combined with a drive to seeking meaning, as opposed to behavior that responds to physical desires. Seichel also ties to the idea of boshet, an exquisite sensitivity to consequences.

ibn Gabriol
Every wise individual knows that it is the seichel that differentiates human from beast, allowing him to rule his nature and prevent his passions from controlling his life. It is that which allows a person to achieve the goal of wisdom and truth of all matters, including humbling oneself before the One God.

Leviticus (19:14)
You shall not insult the deaf, or a place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

Scripture therefore states with reference to [a person with hidden motives]: “But thou shall be afraid of thy God” Who is cognizant of thy secret thoughts. Similarly in all actions where it is given only to the heart of him who does it to know the motive that prompts him and where other people have no insight into it, Scripture states, “But be afraid of thy God!”

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Rashi explains the [verse] is referring to a figurative stumbling block: Do not give advice that serves your interests but is detrimental to the recipient, who is “blind” and uninformed about the issue at hand … only [yourself and God] can discern the underlying motivation for [your] action. With this in mind, we can gain a deeper understanding of the concept of yirah [fear of
God]. Yirah can be found in the recesses of the mind and is the rationale behind a person’s actions.

Holiness also implies a self-insight and self-honesty about one’s motives.

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz describes holiness differently:
[it] is imperative for every person to acquire knowledge and grow spiritually in every possible way. For if we fail to do so, we deprive not only ourselves but society as well. … the importance of constant and consistent spiritual growth … maximize one’s potential

How is the idea of maximizing potential similar or different from Rabbi Wolbe’s concept of holiness?

How then do you develop holiness?

Leviticus (16:2)
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die …

Why did Aaron and his sons need to be reminded about the consequences of disobeying the rules of the mishkan?

Rabbi Henach Leibowitz
To bring intellectual knowledge to the emotional level, Reb Yisroel [Salanter] taught, one must repeat the powerful words of Chazal, “With fiery lips, with clear thought, with vivid imagery to expand each concept …”

This refers to the Mussar practices of fervent chanting and visualization.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe says that the path to holiness is achieved through taking small steps. For example, rather than fasting, by leaving a small portion of a meal uneaten, a person develops the ability to resist giving into their drive for eating.

Thinking about emotional intelligence, self-insight, and seeking meaning – how might those capacities be developed? Why does Rabbi Leibowitz emphasize that it is not only intellectual knowledge involved? How is seichel different from “book learning”?