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The Rabbi Writes

The Rabbi Writes

HOLINESS: It’s the REAL THING

November 09, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

Jacob had dressed up in Eisav’s garments hoping to fool his elderly father. The obvious question is, “Why would the sight of his brother’s clothes be a tool of deception; Isaac was blind?!” The Torah addresses this issue and explains that it was not the look of the clothes that was important, but the smell.  Thus, “Isaac smelled his begadav/clothing” and proclaimed, “See the aroma of my son is like the aroma of the field that G-d has blessed.”

According to Rashi, these specific clothes were a hand-me-down worn by none other than the first human being, Adam. Consequently, the smell that Isaac referred to was the unique fragrance of the Garden of Eden that still lingered. The Medrash suggests otherwise. The word begadim/clothing is related to bogdim (from the Hebrew, boged - a traitor). Hence Isaac ‘smelled’ (i.e., he sensed through Divine Inspiration) the future traitors of the Jewish people. It was that prophetic knowledge that inspired the aging Patriarch to give the wearer of the clothes a blessing.

What could the Medrash possibly mean? Why would a negative prophecy inspire Isaac? Perhaps if we could travel ahead in time, as the Medrash itself does, we would glimpse the sort of traitor Isaac had in mind.     

When the Romans came to destroy the House of G-d, they did not know their way around. So they took a Jew, a traitor to both his G-d and nation, to be their guide. As payment, he could take whatever he wanted from the spoils. His name was Yosef Meshisa.

Yosef went in and took out the Golden Menorah. Imagine how low a Jew can sink, to steal the Menorah! However, the Romans told him that it was not appropriate for a commoner to have such an item in his house. “Go back and take anything else, just not the Menorah.”

Yosef Meshisa replied, “I can’t.” They promised him the income from the next three years of tax collection, but he persisted. “Is it not enough that I angered my G-d and defiled His Temple once! I cannot go back in.” They tortured him until he died. While being tortured, he mourned, “Woe unto me, for I have angered my Creator”.

The Sages asked: What made Yosef Meshisa do Teshuvah? Apparently he was a Jew who had no sensitivity to Jewish values, and suddenly he was prepared to die as a martyr! What transformed him?

The answer: He entered into a holy place. He went in with the worst of intentions, but he walked out a different person. There is something real about sanctity. Mere exposure to the Presence of G-d can change a person for life. That is what happened: Yosef Meshisa was exposed to something holy.

This, says the Medrash, is an example of the ‘traitors’ that Isaac perceived. It is possible to have a Jew so removed from G-d that he can willingly enter the Temple, help the enemy, and take the Menorah - and yet that same Jew can turn around on a dime, repent, and say “No more. I have done enough. Kill me, torture me - but I won’t do it again.”

That power of Jacob’s descendants, to raise themselves from the abyss to holiness, is the trait of the ‘bogdim’ that inspired Isaac to give the blessing. This is an amazing Medrash.  Lest one should claim that this power is unique to the Temple and that today there exists nothing comparable which can instantaneously turn a wicked individual into a righteous one, I will tell you a true story.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was a totally secular Jew. He was a prolific author and a great philosopher, but totally secular - to the extent that he was preparing to convert to Christianity as part of his engagement to a gentile woman. He was a Captain in the German Cavalry in World War I, and was stationed in a Polish town on the night of Yom Kippur. Out of curiosity, he went to the Shtible [small synagogue] at Kol Nidre. He walked out a Baal Teshuva [a returnee to religion]. He broke his engagement and became religious. This was not in America in 2018 where it is a common phenomenon for Jews to return to their religion, but in Germany in 1915!

What happened? He was exposed to Kedusha/holiness. A person who is totally secular, even one who is prepared to adopt another religion, who goes to a shul - not to participate, but merely to observe, when exposed to a place of holiness, on a night of holiness can change. Authenticity can stir a person’s soul.

Kedusha is real. Purity is real. When some of our youth rebel, it may be because they never experienced unadulterated holiness. Sure they saw the begodim, people dressed very Jewishly, but they sensed it was less than genuine. As a consequence, they became bogdim/traitors. But they are not! They just need to be exposed to the real deal. And this does not require a Holy Temple. It just takes a minyan of honest Jews praying sincerely to the Master of the World.

So remember how you act in Shul is not only seen by G-d, it is judged by man.

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