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When Religious People Don't Get It
by Yosef Y. Jacobson

Four mitzvos and a slice of fish

In a small town in Eastern Europe, a poor beggar once approached the home of an extremely wealthy but very stingy man. "Sir, I haven't had a morsel of food in more than two days," he said. "Can you please spare something to eat?"

"My home was not made for losers like yourself," the miser replied. "Why don't you go to the synagogue? There they will surely feed you!"

But the poor man pleaded. "Please, I beg you, I have no strength left. If I don't eat something now, I will die. Please, give me any food you have in the home."

The rich man took from the garbage an old, rotten and smelly piece of fish and gave it to the beggar, who consumed it within a few seconds. As the poor man thanked his host and left the home, he collapsed in the street. They rushed him to the local hospital.

That evening, after returning home from the evening services in the synagogue, the wealthy man informed his wife that he would be leaving and return later at night. "The poor man who ate in our home suddenly fell ill, and he was taken to the hospital. I must go visit him and fulfill the great mitzvah of visiting the sick."

The following morning, after returning home from the synagogue's morning service, the man told his wife: "I have a busy day today. In the synagogue they announced that the poor beggar died early this morning, and that his funeral would take place at 2 p.m. I must attend the funeral of this man and perform the extraordinary mitzvah of escorting the dead on their final journey."

That evening, after returning home from synagogue, the wealthy man informed his wife once again that he would be out late. "At the funeral they announced that the deceased beggar was survived by a son. I must go pay him a shivah call and perform the great mitzvah of comforting a person who is in mourning."

When the wealthy man returned that night from the shivah call, his face was beaming with joy. His entire countenance radiated with happiness. The man was simply kvelling.

"What are you so happy about?" his wife asked him. "What was so exciting about visiting an orphan sitting shivah?"

To which the wealthy miser replied: "How could I not be overjoyed when I think of how many tremendous mitzvos I performed with merely one small stinky piece of fish!

"Think about it. With one decayed slice of fish, I achieved four of the most extraordinary mitzvos: hospitality to the poor, visiting the sick, escorting the dead and comforting the mourning. Ah! How happy I feel."

An Ego Trip

This satirical episode depicts, of course, the profile of a man who may consider himself to be very religious, but who totally doesn't get it; an individual who may technically follow the laws, but who is absolutely alienated from G-dliness and holiness; a person for whom religion is merely a self-centered obnoxious ego trip, rather than a challenge to touch the divine within himself and his fellow human beings.

It is against this type of "religious” person that the Bible warns us in the beginning of the second Torah portion of this week, Kedoshim (1).

"Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel," G-d tells Moses, "and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, your G-d."

What is the meaning of this commandment to "be holy"? What does it mean to be holy? How does one become holy?

One of the greatest biblical commentators, the 13th century Spanish sage, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides or Ramban (2), maintains that the concept of holiness is not limited to the observance of a particular commandment. Rather, it is an instruction that relates to the entire weltanschauung of the Jew, to the core of his lifestyle, to his very perception of self.

In Nachmanides' own words (3):

"The meaning of this ("be holy") is that since the Torah has warned (in the previous Torah portion) against forbidden promiscuous relations and against forbidden foods, while permitting intimacy in a marriage and eating meat and wine, the gluttonous person can find a place to wallow in fornication with his wife or wives and become one of the guzzlers of wine and the gluttons of meat. He may converse at will about all types of licentious things, since no prohibition against this is specified in the Torah. He can be a degenerate with the permission of the Torah. Therefore, after enumerating the things which it forbids entirely, the Torah declares, 'Be holy.' Constrain yourself also in that which is permitted (4)."

"A degenerate with the permission of the Torah!" What a dramatic and moving expression coming from the quill of a 13th-century sage occupied most of his time with defending his Spanish brethren from Christian Jew-haters. Nachmanides is crying out against religious smugness and egocentricity, against Torah-sanctioned vulgarity. He views this verse as a divine protest against the individual who may technically perform all the laws, but still remains coarse and vulgar. He may have learned Torah, but the Torah did not affect him on the inside. His inner beastliness and selfishness have never been refined. G-d, for this individual, is an object of obedience, not an invitation to infinity, mystery and transcendence.

"Be Holy" is the eternal call to challenge the status quo of our nature, to remember that religion may have little to do with G-d and to recall that serving G-d is not merely a ticket to paradise. It is the daily battle for transcendence.


1) Leviticus 19:1.

2) Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, was the leader of Spanish Jewry in the turbulent 13th century. His great Torah scholarship, heroic personal life and incisive analysis of Jewish history and destiny remain a beacon of light through the centuries. The Ramban was born in Girona, Catalonia, Spain in 1194, and was the crown of that country's golden age of Jewish scholarship. Toward the end of his life, he moved to Jerusalem, where he passed away around 1272.

3) Leviticus ibid.

4) The Ramban quotes the Talmudic dictum (Yevamos 20a): "Sanctify yourself also regarding that which is permissible to you." Or as a Chassid once remarked: The first dictum we heard from the Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) was, "What is forbidden, one must not; what is permitted, one need not."


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