This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35.
In this week’s parsha, Moses smashes the Ten Commandments on the foot of Mount Sinai after seeing the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf.
Rashi, the great 11th-century Bible scholar, comments – on the last verse in the Torah – that God gave Moses a yasher koach for breaking the tablets.
This is the origin of the custom to congratulate those who do a praiseworthy job by saying “yasher koach!”
While the proper Hebrew form is yishar kochacha, the saying yasher koach has gotten a life of its own, and its literal meaning is “May your strength be firm.” In essence, you are wishing the person the strength to continue doing good things.
But why did Moses receive a yasher koach for destroying the tablets about which it’s written “The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets”? What is praiseworthy in shattering what was arguably the holiest object in history?
Or, was it holy?
The great scholar Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk (Lithuania, 1843-1926) explains this was necessary in order to teach the Israelites – and all of us – an important lesson.
In his commentary, Meshech Chochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha maintains that at the core of the sin of the Golden Calf lies the Jewish people’s erroneous belief in sources of sanctity outside of God. The Israelites perceive Moses as inherently holy and essential to their relationship with the Divine. When Moses disappears, they feel compelled to create another source of supposed holiness.
Realizing that he must try to cure the nation of its misconceptions, Moses turns to them and effectively says: I am not holy. I am a man just as you. The Sanctuary and its vessels are not intrinsically holy. Their sanctity derives from God’s presence in our midst. If you sin, these objects lose their holiness.
Even the sanctity of these tablets—the word of God—only derives from your relationship with G-d. Now that you have sinned, these tablets are mere stone, devoid of any sanctity. As proof of my point, I shatter them before you!
Rabbi Meir Simcha extends this principle to everything in this world — physical objects, people and land. Nothing is intrinsically holy — whether it’s a tzaddik or the Land of Israel. Holiness is a status that is earned by moral and just behavior, and can be lost too – when the behavior of people is corrupted.
As the Meshech Chochma writes: “In summation: There is nothing holy in the world deserving of service and submission, only the Holy One, Blessed Be He, is holy in His inevitable existence.”
Just as the Tablets and the Tabernacle possess no innate sanctity, so, too, the Land of Israel has no innate holiness. What makes the Land of Israel a “holy land” is performing mitzvot, and building a society based on justice and morality. In other words, if the Israelites maintain a society which pursues justice, with human rights and equality as core values permeating their social existence – the land becomes a holy land. However, if the Israelites’ country degenerates into a country of oppression and discrimination, the land loses its sanctity.
To be sure, there are other views about the nature of holiness. But the bold view offered by Rabbi Meir Simcha is supported by other sources, not the least of which is the Prophet Amos who prophesied that the Jewish people are no different than other nations:
“To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians — declared the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.” (Amos, 9:7)
These striking verses convey an important message about the “Chosen People” concept. Israel has no automatic uniqueness. It is a nation among nations, subject to the same forces of history as other nations. Chosenness is a challenge, not a guarantee or entitlement to any privilege. It is simply another way of saying there are stringent moral requirements demanded from the Israeli society.
It is no accident these verses will be read in synagogue in a few weeks as the Haftarah of Parashat Kedoshim which opens with the command to be holy, alerting us to a deeper understanding of the idea of holiness.
Only the Jewish people’s actions – when they create a society based on human rights and justice for all – make them a holy nation.
Shamai Leibowitz is the operations and ritual director at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim.