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Parshat Shemini – Moving Beyond Respect

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Moving Beyond Respect*

In today’s portion we read of the tragedy that struck Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, when his two sons were devoured by a fire from the Lord when they ministered in the Temple and changed part of the regulations. We read that Aaron was silent at the time of this tragedy. Probably the grief, the inner protest, was too overwhelming for him to say anything at all. At this moment Moses turns to his mourning brother and says to him, “Through those who are close to me will I be sanctified (ekadeish), and before the entire people will I be honored (ekaveid)” (Leviticus 10:3). What is it that Moses told his brother, and that he wished to impart to all posterity, at this time?

There are two concepts that are mentioned by Moses: kedusha, holiness, and kavod, honor or respect. Both of these are worthy Jewish goals deserving of our highest aspirations. Yet, they are not equal to each other – one is a higher level than the other. Kavod, honor, refers to an attitude that is external to the soul. I honor or respect somebody, but that does not necessarily mean that I subscribe to his opinions. I admire or give reverence to a great musician, although I may be absolutely flat and monotone. It is an external act of courtesy, a gesture that is sincere but does not involve my whole personality. Kedusha, holiness, contrariwise, implies an inner transformation, a total commitment and dedication of the entire personality toward the transcendent goal for which it strives. One can give kavod without being changed within. One cannot achieve kedusha until one has undergone a complete spiritual metamorphosis.

Now, kavod is something that the masses are capable of. Kedusha is something which only the initiates are capable of and obligated to achieve. Isaiah (6:3) proclaims even as we do thrice daily, “Holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts, the world is full of his kavod.” The Lord of Hosts, He who is above and beyond the world, is in His essence kadosh, holy. That is the highest realm and the highest level. But insofar as kol ha’aretz, the entire world, ordinary people, are concerned, all they can perceive is kavod, honor or respect.

Respect is a noble, good virtue. But it is antiseptic, it does not require the involvement of one’s inner self. Sanctity, on the other hand, is a higher, deeper, profounder commitment. Therefore Moses said, “Before the entire people will I be honored,” will I receive kavod. For ordinary people it is sufficient that they come into the Temple and minister, that they pray, that they observe the decorousness that is so appropriate in a House of God. For ordinary Jews, an attitude of kavod is about all that one can require of them. But when it comes to kerovai, those who are close to God, then kavod is not by any means sufficient; then only the transcendent and lofty goal of kedusha, holiness, is worthwhile.

This, indeed, is what Moses told his brother Aaron. You may in your heart of hearts feel aggrieved – after all, your sons were ministering to God in the Temple, their heart was in the right place; so what if they changed a part of the service? The answer is: An attitude of kavod, honor for God, is sufficient for ordinary people. For priests, for the children of Aaron, however, kavod is never enough. From them I expect a total dedication, the uncompromising commitment to kedusha, to holiness. If your sons failed, it is because as kerovim, those close to God, they have failed to aspire to higher kedusha.

This is part of our problem in American Jewish life today. We suffer from what Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel has called “a theology of respect.” People come into the synagogue and they respect it – therefore they need not learn from it. They respect Torah, they respect Judaism, they respect religious people, they respect rabbis. And therefore the whole thing is externalized, it never penetrates within their hearts and souls. What is required is a sense of kerovai, of being close to God and therefore setting up as our ideal goal not only kavod but kedusha. In recent years, with the so-called return to religion that we have witnessed, it has often seemed to me that as religion has become respectable, it has tended to become unholy; with its gain in prestige and external acceptance, it has lost some of its passion, its power of criticism, its totality, its involvement with mankind’s most basic and fundamental destiny.

The haftara of this week indicates the same idea. We read of the Ark being taken captive by the Philistines and then being recaptured by David. David was overjoyed at the return of the Ark to the Camp of Israel: “and David danced with all his might” (II Samuel 6:14). His sense of joy and thrill was excited by this great event, and so he responded in a blazing passion of holiness, realizing in practice the words he was to write later in the Psalms, “All my bones say: ‘Lord who is like unto thee?’ ” (Psalms 35:10). And then we read, in one verse “The Ark of the Lord was brought to the city of David” (II Samuel 6:16) – the great and wonderful moment when the holiness of the ages was stamped indelibly upon the city of Jerusalem – “and Michal the daughter of Saul watched from beyond the window.” What a difference is revealed in the contrast between the attitude of David and that of his wife, the princess Michal! While David is involved with his people in the holy undertaking, she, the princess, heiress to the aristocratic traditions of her family, stands far and distant, remote and removed behind the pane of glass, watching her husband David involved with his people and with his joy and with his faith – “and she despised him in her heart” (ii Samuel 6:16). She could not abide the whole theme of David dancing about the Ark. And so when her husband comes home to bless his home, she releases a torrent of abuse and reproach at him. How can you, she cries, dance there as though you were one of the commoners, with the maids and the servants and all the ordinary people? The whole corruptness of her attitude is revealed in two words in her first sarcastic barb at her husband: “ma nikhbad, what kind of honor, of respect, is it
for the King of Israel to act the way you have?!”

This was the undoing of Michal the daughter of Saul. She was limited in her horizons. She could not see beyond the level of kavod. She was forever sealed off from a vision of kedusha. And therefore she did not understand that her husband had transcended the limits of kavod and had risen to the level of kedusha. No wonder that she was doomed to wither away and die and not leave any memory behind her.

This, then, must be our understanding, our duty and our ambition. It is important, of course, that our synagogues possess the element of kavod – of courtesy, of respect, of honor, of decorum. But it is far more important that they attain, as well, the ideals of kedusha – true devoutness, piety, and love of Torah.

When people come into a synagogue and listen to a sermon and they “enjoy” it – that is the level of kavod. When they are disturbed by it to the point of feeling they want to do something – then they are on their way to kedusha.

The rabbi who strives to institute decorum, respectability, and honor in his congregation, has made the steps towards kavod – an absolute prerequisite for a decent service. But that is not enough. The next step  must be holiness, the establishment of a kehilla kedosha, a holy community. To be “inspired” by a synagogue, the services, and the sermon – that is kavod. To be moved by them to obey the message, to follow their line of thinking, to live the life of Torah – that is the beginning of the beginning of a life of kedusha, a life of holiness.


*March 23, 1957