“You shall be holy, for holy am I, HaShem your G-d”: This message was given to all Jewish people, young and old, at the same time. Therefore Rashi connects this general commandment to be holy at the beginning of Kedoshim to the end of Acharey Mot, which discusses prohibited relationships. Rashi comments that the Torah speaks here to “the entire assembly” because the majority of the Torah’s essential laws are contained here.
The portion of Kedoshim starts with the commandment to be holy and lists 61 mitzvot – positive and negative – which cover most areas of our lives. Taken together, they are a prescription for what society should be like under the laws of Torah.
There are three dimensions to our lives – time, space and soul. When the Torah speaks of Shabbat, it refers to the holiness of time. Bet Hamikdash (the Temple) stands for holiness in space, the epitome of which is the Holy of Holies. When relationships are discussed, the aspect of holiness in human beings is touched on.
The Book of Exodus has established the holiness of the Jewish nation when stating: “And thou shalt be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Book of Leviticus, in which this week’s portions are found, however, shows us how to ensure continued Divine presence in our midst.
The question with which commentators have wrestled throughout the generations is what constitutes holiness. There are two ways of observing Torah: the one is to follow the letter of the law exclusively, the other, the spirit of the law as well.
Ramban says that it is possible for a human being to be “a degenerate within the Torah.” He means that it is possible to eat kosher food, say blessings before and after eating, but eat all day long – which is not what the Torah desires a person to do. Drinking wine in excess also is not living according to the true spirit of the law. To consider another example in physical relationships, a person could follow all the restrictions of the Torah but his or her mind could be totally absorbed in the physical side of relationships. In warning against such behavior, Ramban coined the famous phrase “sanctify yourself in that which is permitted to you.”
How are we to judge the level of holiness to which we should aspire if all we have is the directive to be holy? In The Path of the Just the Ramchal explains that is within the reach of every Jew to overcome the inclination to do whatever the Torah forbids.
The protective fences we create around the law are there to lessen the perils of being totally consumed by the material. All of us should set higher goals – how high being relative to where we find ourselves spiritually. Indeed, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch equates holiness with a state of being which permeates the very essence of our existence.
The Orach Chayim (Jacob Ben Asher) makes a poignant observation when stating that the way to refrain from doing things as end in itself, but rather to recognize the positive effects of restraint. This explains why the commandment to be holy was not said to one particular individual but to all the Jewish people together. Holiness is not a goal to be achieved by separating oneself from others.
Does one do things only in order to gratify a personal desire, or does one do them for the sake of HaShem? The Orach Chaim argues that what matters is the intent. A case in point is the Shabbat meal, which takes a long time to prepare and a long time to eat. Our goal at the table is to honor the Shabbat, which transcends pure eating. Through the Shabbat meal, we elevate the physical activity of eating. Ultimately, our challenge is to be involved in the physical without being controlled by it. Humans, the Torah is teaching, are a combination of body and soul.
There are two approaches toward Torah. One is of unlimited indulgence in what is permitted by the Torah in regard to wine, food, etc. The other approach is doing the right thing in the eyes of G-d. This holds true in human relationships also. The Torah lays down guidelines that clarify what kind of person we should aspire to be.
One example that our sages give is the code of conduct in the case of monetary arguments. The Torah favors compromise, as it shows trust and brotherly love: “You shall love your fellow as yourself. I am HaShem.” In Kedoshim, the requirement of love follows a long series of commandments to be acted out in practical daily life.
Rabbi Akiva sets “love your neighbor” as the “great rule” of the entire Torah. Humans deserve to be loved because they were created in the image of G-d. “I wish I could love,” says the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, “the most pious person as much as G-d loves the most wicked person.”
Judaism does not believe in escaping from life and depriving oneself of the joys of living. It is not in the afterlife that G-d’s name is to be sanctified. We strive to be holy in this world and in this lifetime, as psalm 115 so aptly reminds us: “The dead cannot praise the Lord, not any who descend into silence.
My late grandfather, of blessed memory, a renowned rabbinic judge, blessed my father, who was born on Parashat Kedoshim, that he should live up to the title of this Torah portion.
May we share this blessing, individually and collectively, so that we as a nation merit to draw on our rich moral and historic heritage.
Shoshana Tita is the director of Torah Life Center, which seeks to unite Jews of diverse backgrounds behind their common heritage.
In memory of Rav Ephraim Tita Zatzal , born on Kedoshim .