I ask myself regularly if I really want to be holy.

In the year 1930 the Chofetz Chaim traveled to Vilna.

He went to speak in the oldest and most central Shul in Vilna. In honor of the Gadol HaDor all the candles were lit and the tall beams that held up the roof were ornately decorated. The hand carved Aron HaKodesh was brilliantly polished. A half-hour before the scheduled talk the Shul was already completely full. The saintly rabbi stood radiantly at the pulpit and made history. The slightness of his body somehow emphasized the greatness of his soul. People described a sort of spiritual light that the tzadik exuded.

Why was this a historic occasion? Because the Shul was full of women. Many men were crowded outside to catch a glimpse or perhaps a blessing of the Chofetz Chaim but there was a guard at the door that didn’t allow the men into the Shul.

What was the Chofetz Chaim’s message? “Kedoshim Tihyu!” You must be holy! Not vicariously through your husbands or your Rav or even through your children – you yourselves must be holy. Kedoshim Tihyu, you must be holy just like Hashem is holy!”

The Chofetz Chaim ended his talk by pointing out that the evenings event was the first time since the Vilna Shul was built 500 years earlier, that the Shul was filled with women only. The event, he said, should be recorded in the history books.

The Chofetz Chaim then turned around and opened the Aron HaKodesh. Everyone jumped to their feet. The Chofetz Chaim, a Kohein, recited the Birchas Kohein, and blessed the women with parnossa, health and Shalom.

Indeed, this was an historic moment.

I hate to analyze a great moment but something must be said. We all know that there is a concept of kedusha. We even know that there is a Parsha named after the mitzva of becoming holy. Yet, somehow, I think that most of us feel that this mitzva is not really for us. Historically, women have left holiness to the men, men have left it for the scholars, scholars have left it to the Rabbonim and the Roshei Yeshiva, the Rabbonim have left it to the Tzadikim and Rebbes, and those giants have left the mitzva to those who have lived in a previous generation. Kedoshim Tihyu? Let’s get real.

To be completely honest, I ask myself, if I really want to be holy? It sounds scary. Is it a lifestyle that I can really handle? I admire holy people – but is it for me? I’m happy to keep Kosher and put on Tefilin but to be a kadosh sounds too far afield.

This was the message of the Chofetz Chaim. It doesn’t say to admire kedusha, respect kedusha, support kedusha or marry kedusha. Kedoshim Tihyu! Be kedusha! Every Jew must be holy.

And what is entailed in Kedusha? Being kadosh means being special. We must be aware that we are a special people. We can’t allow ourselves to fall into the behavior patterns of the ordinary. We must pay attention to how we dress, how we talk and when we talk. We must be super honest in business and super careful with other people’s feelings. People must say, “He or she is really special, the Jews are really a special people.”

Not just our leaders or our story books – but each one of us.

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has been a leading force in Jewish community and Jewish education for over forty years. He lived and taught in the United States, Australia and in Israel. He is presently the Rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, a vibrant community in the center of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, and serves as the Rabbinic guide to many of its wonderful organisations.


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