The haftara for Shabbat Parashat Vayera is taken from Sefer Melakhim II (4), and tells the story of the isha ha-Shunamite – the woman who conceived after many years of infertility, following a blessing given by the prophet Elisha. The story begins by telling that Elisha would periodically lodge in the woman’s home, and she and her husband eventually decided to build separate quarters in their home for the prophet. The Shunamite woman told her husband that such a gesture was appropriate because “Behold, I know that the man of God who always comes to us is holy” (4:9).
The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (10b) raises the question of how the Shunamite woman knew that Elisha was “holy.” Two answers are cited, explaining that she never saw a fly near the table when he ate, or that when she changed his bedding, she never saw evidence of a bodily emission.
Both answers appear difficult to understand, but regardless, Rav Yisrael Salanter is cited as noting the significance of the Gemara’s question. The Gemara worked off the assumption that a person’s “holiness” is not something readily visible. A “holy” person does not necessarily look distinguished or act in an outwardly distinguished manner in his ordinary affairs. As much as we could assume that the Shunamite woman admired and respected Elisha, the Gemara nevertheless found it puzzling that she definitively described him as “holy.” The Gemara therefore explained that the woman reached this conclusion on the basis of the way Elisha ate and his bedding, which demonstrated a unique level of self-discipline and purity of the mind.
In our pursuit of kedusha, we should focus not on how we appear to others, but on what we truly are and what we ought to be. Whether or not people perceive us as “holy” is not the yardstick by which to evaluate our level of sanctity, and thus our efforts should be directed towards changing ourselves, not changing our image.