A while ago I received a call from a Peninim reader, concerned about the fact that I had distinguished between the focus of punishment meted out to a Jew and that meted out to a gentile. Hashem’s punishment of the Jewish nation is therapeutic, to elevate and better the individual Jews. The punishment that Hashem metes out to the gentile world is punitive. Apparently, more is demanded of us. The caller took issue with the notion that I was differentiating between people. I apologized, but reality is what it is. At times, it might make us uncomfortable. In Parashas Kedoshim, we are presented with the injunction, Kedoshim tiheyu, which basically exhorts the Jew to strive for holiness. We are different; our lives are different; our goals and objectives are different. In order to achieve what is expected of us, we must maintain ourselves on an elevated status of morality, ethicality and holiness. This is why Kedoshim tiheyu plays such a critical role in Judaism.
Daber el kol adas Yisrael, “Speak to the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael.” The pasuk emphasizes that this command should be delivered to the entire nation assembled together. Rashi explains that this section of the Torah was spoken to an assembly of the entire nation. This is because a majority of the essential elements of Torah are dependent upon it.
Rashi’s comment begs elucidation. Was not the entire Torah transmitted to the whole congregation? The Torah is not exclusionary. Its mitzvos apply to everyone. Why was this particular section of Torah presented in a communal setting? Indeed, Rashi details the dynamics of the teaching process to Klal Yisrael. In the process, the entire congregation received one lesson; the Zekeinim, Elders, received two; Bnei Aharon heard these lessons, and Aharon HaKohen heard it four times. Thus, everybody was taught the Torah. Why is Kedoshim tiheyu singled out to be taught to everyone at one time?
The Sifsei Chachamim explains that the other lessons were addressed primarily to the men, while the mitzvah of Kedoshim tiheyu was spoken to all: men, women and children. Alternatively, the Torah was normally taught to the people in sections, allowing for parts to be explained. Parashas Kedoshim was unique in that it was read to the people in one continuous address. Maharal adds that, whereas the nation was not compelled to attend the other Torah teaching sessions, the gathering for Kedoshim tiheyu was compulsory. All were required to be in attendance. Apparently, Kedoshim tiheyu, replete with its many mitzvos addressing kedushas Yisrael, the sanctity of the Jew, could not be missed; they could neither be heard in chapters, nor could the nation be broken into groups for its address. They had to all be together, to hear it all in one session. Why is this?
Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, analyzes what it means to have Hashem in our presence and the implications. He cites the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 3:7, “If ten people sit together and engage in Torah study, the Divine Presence rests among them, as it is stated, Elokim nitzav ba’adas Keil, ‘G-d stands in an assembly of Keil.’” The Mishnah continues that Hashem’s Presence rests on a group of five people, citing the pasuk, “He has established His gathering upon earth.” Using the pasuk, “In the midst of Judges He judges,” Chazal say that the Divine Presence resides in an assembly of three. Two people also have the opportunity for Hashem’s Presence to be in their midst, as it says, “Then the G-d-fearing people spoke, one man to his neighbor, and Hashem listened and heard.” Last, they prove that this Divine phenomenon applies even when one person studies Torah, quoting the pasuk, “In every place in which I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.”
This Mishnah evokes an obvious question: If a single, solitary person feels Hashem’s Presence when he is engaged in a spiritual endeavor, why is it necessary to quote other pesukim to prove that larger groups sense Hashem’s Presence as well? The Mishnah enumerates these pesukim by design. Eitz Yosef explains that each of the pesukim describes a different manifestation of Hashem’s Presence as it rests among us. When a person studies alone, Hashem says, Avo eilecha, “I will come to you.” Avo is a term used to describe a chance encounter. When two people study together, the usual expression is Vayaksheiv Hashem va’yishma, “Hashem listened and heard.” This indicates greater intent and an increased sensation of His Presence. As the number of people ascends to three, five and ten, the degrees of manifestation of Hashem’s Presence likewise increases.
Rav Miller derives an important principle from the Mishnah: Hashem manifests His Presence in our midst, in varying degrees. The larger the group, the greater the intensity with which the members feel His Presence. A minyan, quorum of ten, feels Hashem’s Presence more fervently and with greater passion than a group of five. Five people have a deeper awareness, a more profound knowledge of His Presence, than a smaller group of three, two or one. Additionally, the feeling of closeness to Hashem does not necessarily have to be inspired exclusively by Torah study. It may be precipitated by any gathering that is for the sake of Heaven, which increases kavod Shomayim, the glory of Heaven. Any assembly, whose focus and goal are to spread the light of spirituality in the world, earns the Divine experience. The larger the number, the greater the intensity and more potent the feeling of the Divine Presence.
Hashem never leaves us, regardless of our iniquitous actions. The problem is that when we sin, we become spiritually defiled, causing us to become numb. We are unable to sense the Divine Spirit within our midst. A great Chassidic Master said, “One can be for Hashem, or he can be against Hashem, but he cannot be without Hashem. The Almighty is always there.”
If a Presence exists even when the individual is in spiritual decline, one may deduce that it certainly exists when he is on a lofty spiritual plane. Hashem’s Presence is magnified in greater intensity when the entire nation gathers together for the exclusive purpose of hearing Hashem’s word. This was the nature of the Hakhel gathering. It was an experience that was without equal. Certainly, Hashem’s Presence was felt in a manner that was unprecedented and unrivaled.
With this in mind, we must acknowledge something of which we are acutely aware deep down, but all too often ignore. Hashem is with us all of the time. His Presence is felt even stronger when we are in shul, with many other Jews. Yet, this awareness does not seem to accomplish anything for us. Does it change how we act, how we speak, how we interact with others? Does our mode of prayer take on a new fervor knowing that Hashem is with us – waiting, listening? We have an awesome responsibility to maintain standards that acknowledges the Company that is constantly accompanying us.