April 22, 2024
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The Meaning of Holiness

Parshat Kedoshim begins with the mitzvah to be holy. “Kedoshim Tihiyu.” Many commentators are puzzled by this mitzvah. Why do we need a separate mitzvah to be holy? Isn’t that what the entire Torah is about? Also, what does this mitzvah even mean? How can Hashem command us to do something that seems not to have a specific action we must or must not do?

Vandelay Industries was looking to hire a new vice president of Marine Biology Products. After a three-months-long search, the company had decided on its two finalists, Elaine Denis and Jerry Steinfelder. Neither of these candidates were perfect employees (as we soon shall see), but both were respected experts in their fields. During the search process, Arthur Vandelay, the owner of Vandelay Industries, spoke to the former employers of both candidates to get a better sense of who would be a better fit for the company.

Upon speaking with Jerry’s former supervisors, Mr. Vandelay got the impression that Jerry was mostly a rule-follower. He always arrived at work on time and was honest in his dealings with clients and coworkers. Jerry could always be counted on, but there was one problem: he was a bit of a jerk. Jerry had a reputation for making fun of his coworkers, being loud and obnoxious during meetings, and for just being generally uncivilized. Some people thought Jerry wasn’t a bad person. At least one of his former bosses thought all he needed was a fresh start. However, others felt Jerry was purposely mean to others and that he enjoyed the feeling of putting others down.

Elaine, on the other hand, was a pleasure to work with. She was kind, hardworking, and thoughtful. Elaine always complimented those who did a good job, and knew everyone’s birthdays. She was a talented manager and always got the most out of those who worked for her. However, Elaine had a history of breaking rules. She often came to work late and didn’t always follow company policies regarding interactions with clients. In general, Elaine was considered to be a rebel, but a rebel who got results. Often it was her rule-breaking that allowed her to succeed where others didn’t. Elaine never broke the law or did anything unethical, she just liked doing things her way.

After much deliberation, Mr. Vandelay, along with his executive board, decided to hire Jerry. They felt that in order to properly respect Vandelay Industries, one must respect the rules, and that just wasn’t Elaine. As expected from his reputation, Jerry followed all the rules, and made sure his team did as well. However, he wasn’t exactly making friends quickly. Within his first week of working at Vandelay industries, Jerry had insulted Mr. Vandelay’s pet cat (“Is that a picture of your pet rat? It looks kinda old”), his wife (“Is that a picture of your mother? She looks kinda old”), and had given half of his coworkers annoying nicknames. This wasn’t a surprise to Mr. Vandelay, although it didn’t make him happy either. But as long as Jerry continued to respect the company by following the rules and policies, he would keep his job.

Unfortunately for Jerry (and Mr. Vandelay), this is not how it worked out. The first time Jerry had to make a presentation to the executive board, it became clear that Jerry did not respect Vandelay Industries. Within the first five minutes, Jerry had violated all of Vandelay Industries’ three core values (“Humility, Collaboration, and Patience, the Vandelay Way!”) by talking about himself in third person, by making changes without asking his team for their input, and by ignoring questions because “Jerry’s gotta finish this, okay?” In the end, Jerry was fired and Elaine, still looking for a job, was hired in his place and turned out to be an amazing addition to the team.

According to Ramban, the mitzvah of “Kedoshim Tihiyu,” to be holy, is a requirement to follow Torah values even when there is no specific mitzvah to follow. The Torah doesn’t prohibit stuffing our faces when eating, interrupting people, or sleeping all day. However, it is clear from the mitzvot we do have, that each of these behaviors goes against Torah values. One can show disrespect for the Torah while still keeping each mitzvah perfectly. A true Torah-Observant Jew is not one who only focuses on the mitzvot, but one who strives to live by the Torah’s values. May Hashem give us the wisdom to understand what Hashem asks of us in all situations, even when there is no specific rule to follow,

By Yair Daar

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