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The Virtues of Moderation

Kedoshim t’hiyu – You shall be holy. How does achieve kedusha?” Rashi explains:

“Separate yourself from the “arayos” (i.e., prohibited sexual relationships) and from sin. Because wherever one finds the Torah establishing a restriction (“geder”) against sexual immorality, one also finds [reference to] holiness.”

The arayos to which Rashi appears to be referring are the prohibited relationships delineated in chapter 18 at the end of Parshat Acharei Mot (which immediately precedes Parshat Kedoshim). As proof for his interpretation that kedoshim t’hiyu refers to separation from arayos, Rashi cites two verses. First, Parshat Emor (21:14-15) where the Torah prohibits the Kohen Gadol from marrying any woman other than a virgin on pain of his children becoming “chalalim” (defiled) – “Ki ani Hashem mekadesho – For I am Hashem who sanctifies him.”  Second, Parshat Emor (21:7) where the Torah prohibits regular kohahim from marrying certain women (e.g., divorcees) – “Ki kadosh hu l’elokav – for each one [i.e., kohen] is holy to Hashem.

What is perplexing is why Rashi cites marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim, and the Kohen Gadol, as proof that the average Israelite achieves “kedusha” by avoiding prohibited sexual relationships.  Specifically, it would appear that the priestly marriage restrictions have nothing to do with immorality (indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong with marrying a divorcee or widow – such marriages are permitted to non-kohanim). Instead, the marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim appear to be unique prohibitions designed to highlight the special status of kohanim.

In contrast, the rationale repeatedly cited by the Torah for avoiding the prohibited sexual relationships specified in Parshat Acharei Mot is to raise the morality of the Jewish nation above the debased cultures of Mitzrayim and Canaan (see Achrei Mot 18:3, 24-30). Indeed, the Jewish nation is warned that engaging in such prohibited relationships will cause the Land of Israel to “vomit” them out as it did the prior inhabitants.

Does someone achieve kedusha simply by refraining from sexual immorality? Certainly not, and therefore achieving holiness clearly requires much more than simply avoiding Biblically prohibited relationships. Significantly, there is no reference to “kedusha” in any form in Chapter 18 of Acharei Mos.

It is perhaps for this reason that Ramban rejects Rashi’s interpretation, and explains “kedoshim t’hiyu” as a more general command to practice moderation and self-restraint even in areas that are permitted. That is, avoid becoming what Ramban famously calls a “naval b’reshut haTorah – a hedonist within the confines of the Torah.” As Ramban explains, while the Torah permits the relationship of husband and wife, specific types of meats and wine, and other forms of physical pleasure, there’s a risk that individuals might abuse what the Torah permits and pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. As such, to protect against excessive self-indulgence, the Torah instructs its adherents to practice moderation – limiting physical pleasures as needed, for example, to fulfill a mitzvah.

But does Ramban’s interpretation truly differ from that of Rashi? Perhaps it is possible to explain Rashi in a manner that makes his interpretation consistent with that of Ramban.

In multiple places, Chazal indicate that the more an individual indulges in physical pleasures, the stronger his cravings will become, thus leading to a vicious cycle of ever increasing desires that can never fully be satisfied and thus leave a person feeling perpetually unfulfilled (e.g., Kohelet Rabba 1:34 (“A man does not die with half of his desires fulfilled”); Sanhedrin 107a (indicating that desires grow as they are continually indulged)).

At some point, physical indulgence may even threaten one’s allegiance to Torah. As the gemara in Sanhedrin (63b) states:

The Israelites knew that idol worship is nonsense, but engaged in it anyway in order to render public indulgence in “arayos” permissible.

Rashi explains that the Israelites were overcome by sexual desires and concluded that if they broke free from the restraints of the Torah they would no longer feel shamed by their lustful behavior.

This gemara provides an important insight. An individual who regularly indulges his desires will eventually reach a point where the Torah becomes an obstacle to attaining what he craves (since what he craves is prohibited). Yet, if the person still believes in Hashem, how can he openly flout His will? For the ancients, the conflict between morality and hedonism was resolved by confining “G-d” to an inanimate object (which exhibited no concern for how its worshippers behaved).

The modern hedonist simply carves G-d out of his life (or at least from those areas of his life where obedience interferes with desire).  From his perspective, it’s as if Hashem no longer exists. At that point, the hedonist is free to ignore the Torah’s objective standards of right and wrong, and begin making choices based on his own subjective needs and wishes. Stated differently, to the extent one can remove Hashem from the equation so that His will is no longer a relevant consideration in one's day-to-day moral choices, it becomes much easier to pursue a permissive lifestyle.

Lust is not the only desire that can lead one to abandon Hashem and the Torah. Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 13, Midat Ha’Perishut) states that habitual overindulgence can eventually lead one to cast off the yoke of Heaven, disconnect himself from Torah, and even commit theft and other crimes (since one needs a constant flow of funds to maintain luxuries to which one has become accustomed). In short, it’s a slippery slope from overindulgence to criminality.

The question then becomes how can one avoid reaching the point where one feels compelled to choose between obedience to Hashem and physical pleasures and cravings? Because once one reaches that point, the prognosis is grim insofar as the pull of one’s desires may simply be too great to resist.

According to Mesilat Yesharim, consistent with Ramban, the solution is to practice moderation and abstain from even permissible pleasures that, if overindulged, can lead one down the slippery slope towards rebellion against Hashem. What pleasures one abstains from is, of course, dependent on one’s personal weaknesses. Each individual must be aware of his strongest temptations and set up “fences” to avoid overindulging them.

As the gemara states in Yevamos (20a) – “kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lecha – sanctify yourself by [refraining from] that which is permitted to you.”

With these thoughts in mind, it is now possible to explain Rashi’s interpretation of “kedusha” and reconcile it with Ramban’s view.

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains that the unique prohibitions imposed upon the kohaim are intended by the Torah as a model to inspire and guide the rest of the Jewish nation down a proper path in their own lives. To this end, Rav Hirsch proposes that the source of the word “kohen” – chaf, heh, nun – is “kivun” – chaf, vav, nun, which means direction.

For example, kohanim are instructed to avoid “tumat met” – impurity from a corpse. Since other Jews are permitted to become tamei from a corpse, clearly there is nothing wrong per se with coming into contact with a dead body. Rather, the prohibition against “tumat met” applicable to kohanim is an example of the Torah prohibiting something which is permissible in order to convey a moral lesson. According to Rav Hirsch, the intent is to teach a Jew how to live – that is, by embracing matters of the spirit, and thereby conquering “death” in life (which Rav Hirsch equates with enslavement to physical urges). More broadly, the message is that Man, through the exercise of his free will, is capable of overcoming the physical forces that constantly seek to degrade (“kill”) him, and turn him into nothing more than an animal focused exclusively on physical urges.

This point is developed most poignantly by Viktor Frankl is his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he observes that even in concentration camps – surrounded by death and dying - there were men who were still able to behave morally. According to Frankl, these instances proved to him that even in the worst circumstances man reserves the ability to exercise his free will and decide how he chooses to respond:

In attempting this psychological presentation . . . of the typical characteristics of a concentration camp inmate, I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings . . . But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? . . . do the prisoners' reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances? . . . We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action . . . There were enough examples often of a heroic nature, which proved that . . . man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom . . . even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentrations camps can remember [heroic individuals] . . . [these men] offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way . . . Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him--mentally and spiritually . . . [whether he will] remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

Prohibiting kohanim from tumat met – the impurity of death - conveys this message. Though an individual may be beset by powerful physical drives and desires threatening to break down his moral and ethical boundaries, he retains within himself the strength to “choose life” – that is, to resist these forces and remain loyal to Hashem's will. Life is stronger than death.

As another example of how the restrictions applicable to kohanim provide us with direction, consider the restrictions imposed on kohanim with respect to marriage partners. Regular kohanim may not marry a divorced woman, while the Kohen Gadol may not even marry a widow. Since other Jews are not subject to these prohibitions, we again have an example of the Torah prohibiting kohanim from something that is otherwise permissible.

Rav Hirsch explains that the prohibition against a regular kohen marrying a divorced woman is that divorces often arise from quarrels that could have been, but were not resolved. The moral for other Jews is that marriage is about resolving quarrels fairly and respectfully, not perpetuating them.

Concerning the requirement that the Kohen Gadol marry a virgin, and the accompanying prohibition against marrying a widow, Rav Hirsch explains that a widow might still harbor the ideas and viewpoints of her first husband, which might affect the unity of the Kohen Gadol’s household. The broader message for other Jews is that chastity, harmony and unity are pillars of Jewish married life. No outside influences from third parties – no matter how well-meaning – should be permitted to disturb the harmony of a marriage (a point stressed by Rav Shalom Arush in his books on marriage).

While each of the specific Kohanic prohibitions teach different lessons (as per Rav Hirsch), there is a common denominator between them – the notion of avoiding even what is permissible in order to achieve greater kedusha.

We can now understand why Rashi cited the marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim as proof that kedusha is achieved by separating oneself from “arayos.” The arayos prohibitions enumerated in Parshat Achrei Mot are Biblical prohibitions applicable to all Jews for all time, and thus observing them is a given. Avoiding that which is forbidden does not lead to kedusha. Do we praise someone because he doesn’t murder, and doesn’t steal?  Certainly not. To achieve holiness requires going beyond the basic prohibitions incumbent on everyone.

What distinguishes the “arayos” in Parshat Emor  cited by Rashi is that they are permissible unions forbidden only to kohanim. That is the “geder” – fence – to which Rashi is referring – the practice of distancing oneself even from that which is permissible (see Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 13, who also refers to the practice of forgoing that which is permitted as “boneh geder l’atzmo – building a wall for himself”). In this respect, as noted above, kohanim serve as a model of the mindset and attitudes to which all Jews should aspire  - i.e., moderation and self-restraint.

This insight may help illuminate the significance of the reference to Bnei Yisroel as "mamlechet kohanim" - a nation of priests - in Hashem's instructions to Moshe as the nation camped by Har Sinai and prepared receive the aseret hadibrot:

This is what you must say to the family of Jacob and tell the Israelites - "You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on eagle's wings and bringing you to Me. Now if you obey Me and kee My convenant, you shall be My special treasure among all nations, even though all the world is Mine. You will be a kingdom of priests ["mamlechet kohanim"] and a holy nation ["goy kadosh"] to Me..." (Parshat Yitro, 19:3-6).

Rashi comments that, in this context, "kohanim" does not mean "priests," but instead means "sarim" - ministers (such as when King David's sons are referred to as "kohanim" in II Shmuel 8:18; the context there clearly indicates that the reference is to government ministers). Apparently, what bothered Rashi is that the entire Nation cannot become priests; that function was reserved for only a select few - i.e., the members of the tribe of Levi. So the Torah's use of the phrase "kohanim" cannot literally mean "priests" but instead must mean "ministers."

But what does it mean to be Hashem's ministers in the manner that King David's sons were ministers in his government? Further, if "kohanim" in this context means ministers, then what does that "title" add to the subsequent reference of Bnei Yisroel as "goy kadosh" - a holy Nation? Isn't being a holy Nation the ultimate goal and seemingly sufficient in and of itself - what need is there to also function as "ministers" of Hashem?

However, based on what we've discussed, the use of the term "kohanim" is entirely apt, and properly juxtaposed with "goy kadosh.' Specifically, rather than indicating that all the nation shall be priests, which is impossible, what the reference to "mamlechet kohanim" may instead be envisioning is that each Jew will emulate the model represented by the kohanim - abstaining from the permissible - thereby becoming, figuratively (not literally), a nation of "priests." And in becoming a nation of "priests" -through the practice of moderation and self-restraint - the Jewish nation shall thereby become a "goy kadosh" - a holy Nation. In other words, the juxtaposition of "mamlechet kohanim" with "goy kadosh" represents a progression of the same kind envisioned in "kedoshim t'hiyu" - moderation and self-restraint leads to kedusha (in a similar vein, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, the Rav, explained that the term “kohanim” in “mamlechet kohanim” should be interpreted figuratively as imposing on each Jew the obligation to teach Torah, thereby embracing the responsibility formerly assumed by the kohanim during the period of the Beit Hamikdash to be the teachers of Torah to the nation).

We now see that a deeper analysis of Rashi's interpretation yields the same message advanced by Ramban - abstaining from the permissible is the foundation of kedusha. While Ramban applies this principle to all physical pleasures, and Rashi applies it only to arayos, the message remains the same – the virtue of moderation.


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