A Wholly Life


Dr. Moshe Kaplan

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race… Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of… but he is as prominent on the planet as any other people… The Jew saw [the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans], beat them all, and is now what he always was… All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

– Mark Twain

The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring, and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the pioneer of liberty. The Jew is the pioneer of civilization. The Jew is the emblem of eternity.

– Leo Tolstoy

The Jews have done more to civilize men than any other nation… They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.

– John Adams
(second president of the United States)

The secret of the Jews’ immortality is our relationship with the Divine. We are each to sanctify ourselves and make ourselves holy – and by so doing be partners with God in building the world. This is the charge implied in the famous verse, “As for the heavens, the heavens are God’s, but the earth He has given to mankind” (Psalms 115).

Turnus Rufus the Wicked once asked Rabbi Akiva:

“Whose works are better, the works of God or the works of human beings?”

Rabbi Akiva answered, “The works of human beings…”

Rufus then asked him, “Why do you circumcise?”

Rabbi Akiva replied. “knew that you were asking about this. That is why I anticipated your question by saying that the works of human beings are better.”

Turnus Rufus objected, “But if God wanted man to be circumcised, why didn’t He arrange for boys to be born that way?”

Rabbi Alkiva answered, “Because the Holy One, Blessed is He, gave the commandments to Israel so we could be purified through theme (Midrash Tanchuman, Tazria 5)

God’s gift to humankind, created in the Divine image, is the existence of spirituality beyond physicality. Besides impurity and death there is also the possibility of purity and eternal life.

We have the power to overcome our physical impediment and imperfections. We can ennoble and sanctify our animal drives and instincts. By doing so, we perfect human nature and redeem an imperfect world, for the route to a life of sanctity requires making sacred the materialistic and mundane around us.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva, explains:

Whereas all other living things are created essentially in a state of completion and need only to grow in size and mass, man is created as raw potential and must invest a great deal of effort to becomewhat he was meant to be. A human being’s goal is to strive toward perfection, knowing it can never be achieved. This is man’s mission.

God created the world to bestow His kindness upon us. This world is beautiful and magnificent, but it nevertheless needs completion and perfection. This is accomplished, first and foremost, by our strengthening our weaknesses, repairing our transgressions, and sublimating our drives to sanctify God’s creation. Each defect in the acts of individual people ultimately impacts on the entire universe.

We are given free moral choice, but we have responsibility. Just as a passenger in a boat cannot drill a hole under his seat and tell others to mind their own business, so we cannot say that our actions only affect us individually. We have an obligation to strive for wholeness, balancing and harmonizing our needs with the needs of our neighbors, friends, and loved ones – contradictions and all.

When a person enters the world he becomes a hired watchman for his body and soul and, as an adult, is responsible for all his behavior except for unusual events beyond his control. Fulfilling that responsibility by perfecting his behavior is what makes a person holy.

This is not a simple charge, nor is the best route to achieve it always obvious. However, many people have made the journey and can offer us their experience if we seek it. Some of those experiences are joyous, some trials, but all provide insight in how to achieve true sanctity rather than an illusion.

In our own lives, we must view our own joys and trials through the lens of trust in our Maker. We must understand that ultimately everything under His aegis (meaning absolutely everything!) is for the good – and use the experience with which He provides us to sanctify ourselves and the world. In so doing, we will accomplish much more than a private communion with God. Just as an organism only functions well when all its parts are whole and healthy, so does the world only function optimally when all its players act according to the Divine law. Playing by His rules will allow everyone’s goal to be achieved. Trying to “beat the system” will eventually run everyone into the ground.

Inasmuch as Jews were made a separate nation for the sole purpose of increasing God’s glory in the world (otherwise they could have been left in Egypt), any action that does no contribute toward that goal is misplaced. Not that Jews lack value as individuals, but their value is not that of an island, bu rather of a flower in a flower garden-beautiful by itself, be also part of the garden.

As an example, one who takes pleasure from the world without acknowledging the Creator properly is said to be stealing from both God and the Jewish people. By misusing the world, one distances God from His people, and thus essentially robs both of their relationship. For God is driven, so to speak, from a world that could have been holy. Thus, an individual who abandons his responsibilities as a member of the people that can make God’s presence manifest has done damage to the entire nation’s purpose for existence.

Judaism is not just a religion, it is a way of life. It is meant to be lived on the road, at work, at the gym, ball game, and table. Different people with their different strengths and weaknesses can more easily sanctify different aspects of life, but all are obligated to work toward holiness in every area. Judaism understands God to measure people by how hard they try, not by what they accomplish – but in spiritual matters all are obligated to try! Saintliness is not expected only of some “chosen few.” We must all aim for it, because we all have the potential to attain it in some measure.

Many religious systems disdain the physical and preach that the soul triumphs through denial. They believe that physical pleasure seduces a person away from spirituality. This is not the Jewish point of view. Used properly, the physical becomes an invaluable and indispensable aid in the acquisition of spiritual greatness. Our job is to take the worldly gifts that God gives us and elevate them to the heights of holiness – to combine the physical with the spiritual. Physical pleasure finds its place as a subject for gratitude to the One who created physical enjoyment. However, the misuse of physical pleasure has led to all of humanity’s struggles, suffering, and unrest. What is needed is the proper fusing of license and restraint, to elevate us and create harmony, serenity, gladness, and joy – holy goals.

Pleasure is holy and pure when it is measured, when the supervising intellect ensures against both excess and denial, and provides the proper intent. Overindulgence in any area of one’s physical life, even in the most kosher activity, becomes spiritually destructive. The challenge, then, is to free ourselves of the domination of selfish and self-destructive desires and make room for our longing for the Divine.

How are we to know the proper balance in matters of physical pleasure? For many, common sense is sufficient. For others, help can be found in the traditional sources, such as Rambam (Maimonides), or from a mentor. In any case, both excessive indulgence and excessive self-deprivation must be guarded against. We are called to account in Heaven, it is told, for those things we could have legitimately enjoyed and didn’t. The sages of the Talmud say it is no feat to remain pure by fasting and retiring from the world. The real accomplishment is to live in the world, doing what is permitted and avoiding what is prohibited. Judaism is not a life lived only for bold moments and heroic feats. Rather it values and nurtures the everyday details that bring one closer to God’s light.

So there is the challenge, given by God to those who choose to take it up. But it is not an even choice. On the one side is sanctity and life. On the other, spiritual death. Nor is it possible not to choose. Choosing not to move forward toward holiness inevitably pushes a person toward a wasteland of spiritual destruction.

Becoming an integrated, holy person requires sanctifying every aspect of one’s personal behavior using all of one’s God given abilities and resources. According to one’s success in this endeavor, so will he be judged, in this world and in Heaven. As it says in Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers):

Who has wisdom? He who learns from everyone.
Who has strength? He who conquers temptation.
Who has wealth? He who is content with his lot.
Who has honor? He who respects others.

In the end, one’s worth is determined by one’s character and spiritual achievements.

The Maharal explains that the years of a person’s life are like a spiral – we pass over the same ground each year, but move higher with each cycle. A wise person knows that life is a gift that can be utilized well or badly, and that it is never too late to change for the better. Every minute that we are alive there is hope.

As Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers) further states:

“You are not expected to complete your work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

It is my hope that this book will give you a start on the how and why of being God’s partner in the creation of the world and ourselves.

“Excerpt from “A Wholly Life” compiled by Moshe Kaplan, MD.
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