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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Kedoshim, Vayikra 19:2. Kedoshim Tihiyu and the Blessing on Trees

The confluence of Parshas Kedoshim and Springtime, the month of Nissan, highlights an interesting idea. Rashi in the beginning of the parsha says Kedoshim Tihyu– Perushim tihyu, holiness means abstinence from illicit pleasures. According to Rashi, Kedoshim Tihyu does not introduce any new obligation or prohibition; it only reinforces our standing obligation to observe the mitzvos of the Torah. The Ramban, on the other hand, sees it as a new admonition. According to him, it is a moral directive to abstain from physical pleasures. Kadeish Atzmecha Bemuttar Lecha: Even those things that are not prohibited by the laws of the Torah should be avoided; purposeless pleasure runs contrary to Kedusha.

In the month of Aviv/Nissan, we make a bracha on blossoming fruit trees. (See video link at bottom.) In this bracha we praise Hashem for His gift of Beauty to mankind, for creating beautiful things in the world so that we will have pleasure from them. But is this not inconsistent with the Ramban? How does enjoying the trees of Spring enhance our holiness? And if it can't enhance our kedusha, are we not told to avoid it? Aren’t we instructed to aspire to an ascetic life of pure spirituality, in which worldly pleasures are no more than attractive nuisances?

And what about the Mishna in the Avos 3:9; hamafsik mimishnaso ve’omeir mah no’eh ilon zeh...ke’ilu mischayeiv benafsho. How is this consistent with the bracha on ilanos? Doesn’t this Mishna imply that indulgence in esthetic enjoyment is sinful, and inherently inconsistent with Torah? Is it a sin to have pleasure from the beauty of the trees, or is it a good thing?

And what about Shimon Hakapar's famous dictum that the Nazir is a chotei, a sinner, for inflicting suffering upon himself by voluntarily prohibiting the enjoyment of wine? That he is a sinner for rejecting the good that God has created in the world, that he is doing damage to his soul by being a Porush? How can this be? He is not a chotei! He is being mekayeim the mitzvah of Kedoshim Tihyu!

The Chasam Sofer shows us how to answer these questions.

The Chasam Sofer here says: Our idea of kedusha is not rejection of the beauty and pleasures of the world. We do not deny what the world has to offer; on the contrary. We appreciate all the world has to offer, even the things the Torah forbade. As Rashi brings from Reb Elozor ben Azariah on the passuk later (20:26) Va’avdil eschem min ha’amim lihyos li, we do not say that chazir is disgusting; it must be very tasty , but we abstain from it because of God’s command. We are prushim not because we despise gashmius, but instead because we want to be daveik to kedusha, and kedusha grows from prishus and mitzvos. But even in prishus, we must not withdraw from society; our prishus is be’hakheil, while fully involved with others, because intimate association with Klal Yisroel potentiates kedusha. And even in prishus, we do find ways to enjoy the world, as we see in the bracha of flowering trees. But we do so only in ways that enhance our pursuit of kedusha.

Prishus is not a tachlis. Prishus is a tool that reminds us of the danger of making hana’as olam hazeh into a tachlis. If you make it a tachlis, you will inevitably ruin yourself. But if you learn prishus, you will be able to train yourself to make a life of kedusha in which hana’os olam hazeh are not only not a distraction, but which can even enhance your kedusha.

Same with Nezirus. The gemara calls him a chotei for being a porush. The Gemara on 2b says, how can a Nazir be called “na’eh,” beautiful, when being a Nazir is an Aveirah! What’s that supposed to mean? What happened to Kedoshim Tihyu? The answer is that Prishus is a mitzvah, and it is an aveirah, and it is worthless, and it is priceless. The good Prishus is not intended to denigrate olam hazeh. Prishus is necessary to remind us of our priorities. Sometimes, as the Rambam says in Dei’os, a person has to become a porush gomur for a while. As Tosfos says there in Nazir 2b, yes, prishus is a sin, but the mitzvah is greater than the sin; when there is no alternative, an asei is docheh a lo sa’aseh. But the real hope is that he will then be able to return to a temperate life that will fully engage the world and its beauty and pleasure– but only to that degree that it is not mafsik his mishneh.

A perfect example of this concept is our minhag of Yom Kippur. At Maariv after Kol Nidrei, when we are full from our pre-Yom Kippur Seudos, when we have eaten more then usual because of the Mitzva of eating on erev Yom Kippur, we say Baruch Sheim out loud, like Malachim. But after Ne'ilah, having spent twenty six hours fasting and praying, we say Baruch Sheim quietly. But aren't we so much more like angels after Ne'ilah? The answer is that being angelic has nothing to do with whether we have food in our stomachs or whether we are hungry. It depends on what dominates our minds, what how we plan to comport ourselves, it has to do with what is the dominant thought in our minds. Erev Yom Kippur, we are excited and nervous about spending the next day in focused avodas hashem. That is a Malach, even if his stomach is full. Motza'ei Yom Kipppur, we're thinking about where our car keys are and whether the rov and the shliach tzibbur, those anti-semites, are going to kvetch through krias shma and shmoneh esrei. That is not a Malach, even if his stomach is empty.

As I've remarked before, the position of asceticism in Jewish hashkafa is very complex; the Lubavitcher Rebbe's doctors have said that he would pour salt over his food so that he would derive no pleasure from it; the Satmerer Rov did not sleep in a bed, but napped in a chair, for most of his life. On the other hand, other gedolim lived a life that, while thoroughly examined and disciplined, did not eschew the simple pleasures of life. Prishus is not only very complex, but it is also a very personal choice, and is certainly not a lifestyle which the average person should embrace. The Gemara teaches us the remarkable lesson that Prishus, although it is a mitzvah, that it can help a person become a kadosh, it can also be sinful and even destructive. Anytime the same act can variously be meritorious and sinful, one must tread carefully. But I think that the Chasam Sofer's careful and nuanced approach is true le'chol hadei'os and for all people.

Here is an engaging video of two gentlemen making the Bracha on Blossoming Trees. I am not responsible for the contents, not for the F16 and particularly especially not the Kabbalah.

Birkas Ha'ilanos

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