Our Chayalim, Our Holy Chayalim

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Since October 7th, I have continually referred to our chayalim, the soldiers of the IDF, as kedoshim—our holy people. They are undoubtedly heroes deserving of our endless gratitude, but they embody something deeper. They are kedoshim because they epitomize the essence of kedusha, holiness.

This coming Shabbat, we conclude Sefer Vayikra. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz noted that every topic in Vayikra reflects holiness. The first half deals with holiness in the mikdash, through laws on sacrifices, ritual purity, and impurity. The second half addresses holiness outside the mikdash, covering the sanctity of man through interpersonal mitzvot, the sanctity of time through Shabbat and holidays, and the sanctity of place through shemitta and yovel.

But what is kedusha, or holiness? Charles Liebman, a prolific author on Jewish life, distinguished between ruchniyut (spirituality) and kedusha (holiness). In 1997, Liebman argued that much of American Jewry prioritizes self-fulfillment over communal and national identification. He asserted that spirituality, while enticing and personal, is not the solution. The Torah commands us to be holy, not merely spiritual. Holiness is achieved communally, invoking an external source, while spirituality is a process of self-realization.

Spirituality is alluring because it is personal and immediately fulfilling. Holiness, however, demands submission to something beyond ourselves. As we finish Sefer Vayikra, we are reminded that our mission is rooted in kedusha.

How do we balance kedusha and ruchniyut? The first two verses of keriat shema offer insight. The first verse, "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad," represents accepting God's kingship—an act of holiness. In fact, Rabbenu Yonah writes (Megilla 23) that the recitation of keriat shema is the quintessential davar she-bikdusha, or act of holiness. The next verse, "V’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha," calls for a loving connection to this obligation—an aspect of spirituality.

Our chayalim exemplify this balance. Their lives of kedusha are marked by selfless sacrifice for the greater good—the State and people of Israel. This is kedusha. Yet, they undertake these sacrifices with profound love and passion for the nation they defend, embodying both holiness and spirituality.

Let us pray for the success of our holy chayalim. Inspired by their example, let us strive to make our mitzvah observance more meaningful, seeking to achieve both v’ahavta and kedusha. The foundation of our religious life is not merely to live spiritually, but to live a holy life dedicated to God and the nation of Israel.