One of the most fascinating characters in nineteenth century Hasidism is Rabbi Menahem Mendl Morgenstern (d. 1859), known as the Kotzker Rebbe. He was known to have secluded himself for prolonged periods of time: what today we would call an extreme form of social distancing. He famously said that God exists wherever you let him in. His biography is masterfully told in philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s last book: A Passion for Truth.

 

One notable observation among many of the Kotzker is that the Torah portion Kedoshim (which this year is appended to the portion Ahare Mot) begins with the call to “Be holy!” (Leviticus 19:2) and ends with the pronouncement regarding the punishment for those who consult with the spirits of the dead “their bloodguilt shall be upon them” (Lev. 20:27), meaning they shall be put to death. The Kotzker sees a connection between the opening words “Be holy!” and the concluding words “they shall die.”

 

That people shall die is not a novel idea. It is the natural eventuality of all life, as we know it on earth. Human mortality is a fact. And the fact that Jews die is also no revelation. Jews have died naturally. And Jews have been killed unnaturally, perhaps more than any other people in human history. But to the Kotzker the message to be derived from the Torah portion is that even though Jewish lives might be taken, it is an existential imperative to be holy. Jews are duty bound to sanctify their lives even more than sanctifying their deaths. The goal that all Jews ought to strive to attain is holiness: living in the noblest way possible no matter the threats or challenges.

 

The Kotzker does not specify precisely what that entails but we can venture a guess on the basis of the content of the Torah portion found between the opening words and the conclusion: be charitable (Lev. 19:9-10), be honest (Lev. 19:13), respect all people (Lev. 19:14), be just (Lev. 19:15), assist those in jeopardy (Lev. 19:16), love all people (Lev. 19:17) and especially your fellow Jews (Lev. 19:18) and bear no grudge (Lev. 19:18). Living in accord with these principles will elevate and ennoble us. And a noble life no matter how short is a worthy life.