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Striving For Holiness

A Sermon, by the Rev. J. K. Gutheim, of Cincinnati, Delivered in the Elm Street Synagogue, New York,

שבת פרשת שלח לך June 12th, 5607


In responding to your invitation to expound to you the word of the Lord this day, I feel both honoured and gratified. For what greater honour could you confer on me than to allow me to address you in the sacred cause of our religion? What purer source of gratification could you afford me than your desire, evinced on this occasion, to listen to my exposition of our holy law? If there be a subject that is to us of vital, pre-eminent importance, to the full understanding of which we are diligently to employ our mental faculties, to the promotion of which we are to exert our utmost zeal and endeavours, that subject is our holy religion. To labour in its cause is a duty incumbent on every member of the covenant. כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה A mutual pledge exists between all the members of our household; to admonish, to exhort, to instruct, is the province of every Israelite; and happy indeed shall I feel if my feeble words will strike a responsive chord in the bosom of the faithful, revive the slumbering germ of religion in the heart of the wavering, and arouse the minds of all to serious reflection on the sublime doctrines and purposes of our holy faith.

To render man a holy being, is the chief object of our divine <<431>>religion. All the laws, commandments, statutes, and precepts enacted for our guidance, tend towards the accomplishment of this end; every relation in our individual, as well as every station we may occupy in social life, is provided for in the revealed word of God. The law of the Lord speaks to the rich and the poor, to the great and the humble, to the young and the aged, to the rejoiced and the afflicted; and by a strict adherence to its provisions will be acquired those high qualities that constitute the holiness of our being:—purity of heart, nobleness of mind, and sublimity of sentiment. To be holy, in fine, is the loftiest aim, the final, God-pleasing goal, to gain which we are urged on; and in numerous passages of Scripture the observance of the commands of God is declared to be the only condition of our sanctification. Thus we read in today’s Sidrah:

למען תזכרו ועשיתם את כל מצותי והייתם קדשים לאלהיכם׃

“In order that you remember and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God.”—Num. 15:40.

Let us therefore examine,

I. What do we understand under holiness?

II. What are the means towards our becoming holy? and

III. What is the end aim of our holiness?

May the Lord bless our endeavours, that they redound to the sanctification of his name. Amen.


One of the sublime attributes ascribed to the Most High in Scripture is Holiness. We therefore say, God is all-holy; that is, He is the most perfect Being we are capable of conceiving; in Him, the Lord, there is nothing imperfect, but He is all truth, justice, and goodness. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Zebaoth, the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Is. 6:3.) Thrice holy is the Lord, for He loves virtue and detests vice, and has shown to the weak mortal the way to become holy. “Sanctify yourselves, and be ye holy, for I am the Lord your God. Observe ye my statutes, and do them, I, the Lord, sanctify you.” (Lev. 20:7, 8.) This is  a divine admonition; and the more zealously we devote ourselves to the service of God, the more conscientiously we follow his law, the more firmly we adhere to his precepts, and unde<<432>>viatingly choose religion as the standard of our thoughts, actions, and words:—the more lasting and permanent will be the character of holiness we thus acquire.

But this holiness, shall it otherwise be genuine, must pervade our whole being; its influence must be recognised in all our works. It must be manifested in the dominion we exercise over our earthly passions and desires; in our conforming to the rules of temperance, modesty, and chastity; in the practice of deeds of charity and benevolence;—in a word, in our love for virtue and our aversion against vice, or in doing everything the law recommends as good, and abstaining from everything it denounces as bad. As servants of the Most Holy, we must carefully keep aloof from whatever could pollute our soul and desecrate our service. For in the image of God we are created, to his glory and sanctification we are singled out. “For a holy people art thou unto the Lord thy God, and thee the Lord hath chosen to be unto him a peculiar people from all the nations on the face of the earth.” (Deut. 14:2.)

Manifold are the obstacles that in the course of our life impede our progress towards piety and holiness. From our earliest youth we are engaged in a continual struggle. It is the struggle of the higher, spiritual, with the lower, worldly life. The combination of both these antagonistic elements constitutes our nature; and it is entirely depending on the power of our will, if the one or the other shall come out victorious. Virtue and holiness stand to our right, vice and corruption to our left. Could we for a moment hesitate for which to decide? Must we not do everything in our power, spare neither sacrifice nor trouble, in order to ascend step by step in the scale of holiness, so that in the consciousness of leaving faithfully discharged our duty as men and as Israelites, we can, with a quiet conscience, look about us, behind us over the past, and before us into the future?

Our striving after holiness must, however, be true and sincere, and we are to be careful to distinguish between appearance and reality. Our godliness and piety are not to consist only in words and outward forms, but must be rooted in the depth of our heart and form the basis of all the transactions of our life. Dissimulation, or hypocrisy, is in itself a vice that brings man in conflict with himself, and makes him contemptible in his own eyes. The <<433>>hypocrite is even more dangerous than the notorious sinner.* The latter will pass for nothing better than what he really is whilst the former, through dissimulated piety, abuses the confidence of his fellow-man, and bids defiance to the omniscience of. God. The hypocrite harbours within him deceit, cunning, and falsehood; whereas the heart of the truly pious and holy is warmed by sincerity and truth. True piety only can engender holiness,—a sincerely religious conduct only can preserve us therein. Let us therefore inquire, secondly, into the means which religion recommends to our sanctification.

* וכן אמרו חכמינו ז״ל. אל תתירא לא מן הפרושים ולא ממי שאינם פרושים אלא מן הצבועים שדומים לפרושים שעושים מעשי זמרי ומבקשים שכר כפנחס׃


Our text supplies us with an answer: “When you remember and do all my commandments, then you will be holy.” In like manner do we read in Lev. 22:31: “You shall keep my commandments, and do them; I, the Lord, sanctify you.”† The study of the law and the observance of it are enjoined in these words. The means to become holy are, therefore, in our hands, namely, תורה מצות ומעשים טובים the law, the commandments, and good deeds.

A sufficient knowledge of our religion is indispensably necessary, in order to appreciate its doctrines and follow its precepts. Religion is the highest science of our life; and our aim must, therefore, be to become proficient therein, both in theory and in practice. The book of the law must be our guide through life; inasmuch as it teaches us “what the Lord requireth,” and as its enactments, if properly carried out, impart to all our actions the impress of holiness. Who can read its hallowed pages without being struck with the eternal truths they contain?—without acknowledging the pure, monotheistic doctrine they inculcate?—without admiring the sublime morality they enforce?—without recognising the grand, beneficent design of the Almighty, who has destined his revealed word to become, through our agency, the ultimate property of all mankind? Who can peruse the holy record, without becoming aware of the duties he owes to God, <<434>>to his fellow-men, and to himself? To love and fear the Lord, to observe his Sabbaths and holy seasons as tokens of his omnipotence, to respect and keep inviolate the property, honour, and character of our neighbour, to cling to truth and avoid falsehood; to exercise right and justice without distinction of person, to look upon God as the Author of ףשr being, and the supreme Judge of our actions, to love our neighbour like ourselves, and to abstain from everything that is contrary to the dictates of our conscience and would taint the divine spark that animates our being,-these are the means the Torah recommends for our sanctification,-­these are the requisites of our holiness.

ושמרתם זו המשנה ועשיתם זה המעשה רש״י׃

The study of the Law, therefore, is of paramount importance. “Thou shalt meditate on it day and night,” is the command of the Lord.גדול התלמוד שמביא לידי מעשה “Important is the study, for it leads to practice;” לעולם ישלש אדם שנותיו שליש במקרא שליש במשנה שליש בתלמוד “we should divide our [study] time by devoting a third to the Bible, a third to the Mishnah, and a third to the Talmud, for ‘the threefold thread cannot easily be rent,’” say our sages. All the persecutions and wrongs we have sustained  for twenty centuries could not snap this threefold thread, all the injudicious exertions of innovators of modern times will not snap it. It has been our shield and protection, has prevented a dismemberment of our community in adversity, it will be our pride and delight, will preserve our national and religious integrity in prosperity. But to boast of the mere possession of these holy records is not sufficient. We must endeavour to comprehend their spirit ourselves, we must erect schools and seminaries of learning for the benefit of the rising generation. Then, and only then, will the Torah prove a source of holiness, and will prompt us to observe the commandments (מצות) it enjoins.

The word מצות in its limited sense means our ceremonial laws. In its more comprehensive sense it is the term for every deed acceptable in the eyes of the Lord. I employ it here in its limited sense, and contend that our ceremonial laws are a powerful means towards our becoming holy.  There has often been a charge, preferred against us, that we have a religion of ceremonies, and that the Jew looks upon these ceremonies as the principal part of his religion. This accusation, however, is founded in error. We consider religious ceremonies as emblems and symbols of important truths, as memorials of mighty events the <<435>>Lord has wrought for our fathers. For this purpose they were instituted, for this purpose we cling to them to the present day. These religious memorials are to be our safeguard against temptation and sin, against vice and corruption. Man is but too apt to follow the promptings of his heart, to satisfy the longing of his eyes, and to lose sight of his exalted destiny. Therefore religion prescribes certain forms and ceremonies, which as in the instance of the fringes, “have only to be looked upon to remind the Israelite of all the commandments of the Lord,” and to lead him in the right path, from which he would otherwise have strayed; therefore we say in the usual formula of benediction at the performance of each religious act: ב״א״י א״מ״ה אשר קדשנו במצותיו “Blessed  be the Lord our God, who has sanctified us through his commandments;” therefore our sages say כל מי שיש לו ציצית בבגדו תפילין בראשו ומזוזה בפתחו אין במהרה הוא חוטא “Whoever has fringes on his garments, phylacteries on his head, and a Mezoozah on his door will not easily sin;” and again they quote the wise king, “The threefold thread cannot easily be rent.” Abroad and at home we have thus mementos of our God, whose all-seeing eye is ever upon us; we wear a symbol of his omnipotence and holiness near our heart and between our eyes, to hallow our thoughts and desires; we wear the emblem of his law on our breast to be mindful of his will; and the word שדי “The Omnipotent,” shining forth in bold characters from every door-post of our dwellings, reminds us that we are under the constant vigilance and protection of the Almighty. Is not all this calculated to produce the most salutary effect, to cheer us onward in our course towards holiness and perfection?

The Law and Commandments thus united will lead us to מעשים טובים good, benevolent deeds. The exercise of charity and benevolence as a truly ennobling and sanctifying tendency. Whilst cultivating feelings of love and good-will towards our neighbour, our heart expands in the service of Him of whom the Psalmist,, sings, “He gives food to every creature, for his mercy endureth for ever.” (Ps. 136:25.) He provides for every created being, not because they have a claim on his bounty and munificence, “but because his mercy endureth for ever.”—“To walk after the Lord our God,” (Deut. 13:5,) i.e. to imitate  his ways as much as our circumscribed means admit of, we are enjoined <<436>>in order to become holy. And it is a peculiar characteristic of our race, attributable to the benign influence of our Law, that in prosperity and adversity, love and humanity shone brightly on our banner, and gave the peculiar expression to our features and bearing. When the king of Syria surrendered at discretion to the king of Israel, (Reg. 1:20,) he did so, “because the kings of Israel enjoyed the reputation of being merciful kings.” ב״י ביישנים רחמנים וגומלי חסדים “The children of Israel are modest, merciful, and benevolent,” is the adage of a later period. To support the needy, to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to dry the tear of the widow, to be the orphan’s father, to pardon and forgive injuries, to be kind and humane towards all creatures—these are the “good deeds” that lead to sanctification. Let, therefore, “the Law, the commandments and good deeds” be your companions through life, and you will reach the haven of your destiny in safety, you will be holy, for (again I say) “this threefold thread cannot easily be rent.”


But what is the end and aim of our holiness, we ask thirdly?—When the Lord delivered our fathers from Egyptian bondage, when He extricated them from the midst of Egyptian superstition, and proclaimed to them his Holy Law, He at once announced their mission in the words: “And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” From that time we were, for ever, consecrated to his service. A pure creed based on the doctrine of One God, and a mode of worship, unadulterated by any superstitions and incongenial admixture, we were ordered to propagate. קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני We were to be holy, because the Lord who has thus distinguished us is also holy. To Him alone we must cling, Him alone we must fear, to Him alone we must pray, in Him alone confide amidst all the vicissitudes of our existence. By thus sanctifying ourselves in his service, we vindicate the glory of our heavenly Father. It is not for our own benefit alone that the Law has been given us; but for that of  the whole human family; hence it is our duty to observe and act up to it in all its parts, in order to show the world its excellence. Yes, by being faithful to our trust, by manifesting the high virtues our religion inculcates, by endeavouring to become holy;—we <<437>>challenge mankind to imitate our example, and the time will be hastened, when all nations will exclaim, “Let us join the house of Jacob, for the whole congregation are holy, and in their midst is the Lord.”

And lastly, the final aim of our holiness is our preparation for that eternal life for which we are all destined. With the close of our career on earth also die all our earthly pleasures, desires, and aspirations. The dust mingles with the dust; but the soul soars on high and returns to the Lord who gave it, and happy we if it reach there in a state of holiness. To prepare ourselves for that life, where nothing reigns but truth, purity and holiness, should be our highest aim. This truth our sages enforce when they say, “This world is, as it were, the antechamber to the world to come; prepare thyself in the antechamber that thou mayest gain admission into the palace.” (Aboth 4:21.) Endeavour, then, my hearers, to know the Law; ponder well on the sublime truths it inculcates; keep the commandments it enjoins; and distinguish yourselves in the practice of good and benevolent actions. “Remember and do all the commandments of the Lord, and you will be holy unto your God!”

May the Lord in his kindness and in his mercy guide us, may his blessing rest upon us now and for ever. Amen.