Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 04.28.18

D’var Torah: You Shall Be Holy

Rabbi Jeff Cymet, Rabbi of The New Kehila of Ramat Aviv, Israel

When Moses is instructed at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parasha, to “Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for holy am I, the Lord your God'” (VaYikra 19:2), Moses is ostensibly bestowing upon us one of the highest accolades possible: A status of holiness that, in its very self-description, equates the entire assembly of the Children of Israel with God.

The concept of holiness, in general, and the holiness of the Children of Israel, in particular, is so important to Judaism that Rashi notes (in his comment to VaYikra 19:1) that “most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah are dependent on it.” In fact, it has been noted by those who study the literary structure of the Torah that this verse comes in the middle of the section of Torah that comes in the middle of Sefer VaYikra, which itself is the middle book of the Torah (book 3 of 5). In other words, the Torah emphasizes the centrality of this idea by literally putting it in the center of the Torah itself.

But what does it actually mean to be a holy nation, and what does it take? On the one hand, no single attribute in Judaism is more emphasized, idealized, and celebrated than holiness. But on the other hand, it is a concept that is ill-defined, potentially illusory and often offensive to others. Can we really be holier than other nations? And do we really want to?

The midrashic work, the Sifra, interprets the phrase “you shall be holy” to mean “you shall be perushim”, meaning “separated.” Holiness, in this view, means being set apart. (The word “perushim” is also the Hebrew word for the ancient Pharisees who saw themselves as separate and holy). The Sifra explains that God is essentially saying, “Just like I am holy, you should be holy; just like I am separate, you should be separate.”

But how are we to understand the Sifra? From what are we to keep separate, and how do we do that? Rashi, in his interpretation of VaYikra 19:2, says that it is the Torah’s code of sexual ethics that makes us holy, separating ourselves from the sexual immorality of other nations.

The Ramban, not unlike contemporary critics of Freudian theories that similarly essentialize the human spirit to issues of sexuality, found Rashi’s interpretation – that holiness is entirely about sexual ethics – to be too limited and limiting. Instead the Ramban contended that holiness derives from the self control that involves “separating ourselves” from our natural desire for self-indulgence in all realms, and not just the sexual. Holiness is thus also to be found in all of the imperatives found in this week’s double parsha, which scholars have dubbed “the Holiness Code,” and which includes some of the most inspiring interpersonal ethical commandments of the Torah. We find here: “[Y]ou shall not place a stumbling block before the blind (VaYikra 19:14), “[W]ith righteousness shall you judge your fellow” (VaYikra 19:15); [Y]ou shall not be a gossipmonger” (VaYikra 19:16), “[Y]ou shall not hate your brother in your heart” (VaYikra 19:17), and “[I]n the presence of an old person shall you rise and you shall honor the presence of a sage.” (VaYikra 19:32)

But it was VaYikra 19:18 that Rabbi Akiva famously declared to be the fundamental principle of all of Torah – “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Thus, to be a holy nation is to be a nation of people who have so elevated themselves above self-indulgence that they can truly love their neighbors as they love themselves. In this way, holiness is manifest in our relationship to the other.

In VaYikra 20:7, God says: “You shall sanctify yourselves and you will be holy.” In other words, the Children of Israel are not inherently holy, nor were we made holy by God. It is up to us, the Children of Israel, to make ourselves holy through how we treat others. The quest for holiness may often be elusive, at times may appear illusory, and may offend others for whom even the aspiration to holiness may appear to be pretentious, but it is at the very center of the Torah’s call to the Children of Israel.

For Discussion: Who are your personal models of holiness? How do they conduct themselves? When have you felt that you were engaged in holy action?