We are mandated to infuse daily acts with holiness


Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Amos 9:7-15

"Kedoshim tihiyu. You shall be holy" (Leviticus 19:2). There appears to be a difference of opinion between the great commentators, Rashi and the Ramban (Nachmonides) on how to understand this mitzvah. Rashi teaches that this commandment is fulfilled by avoiding certain particular sins. The Ramban, on the other hand, holds that here the Torah is revealing a new concept, that of our need to sanctify behavior that is neither inherently sinful nor even necessarily consisting of mitzvot.

This is to say that being holy concerns the everyday acts of eating, sleeping and other natural functions. One can choose to execute these acts no differently than animals or one can choose to consecrate them and infuse them with holiness. The Ramban explains that there are many pleasures given to man to enjoy within the limits of the laws of the Torah; but even within this framework of permitted enjoyments there is plenty of opportunity for excess.

While scrupulously observing the letter of the law a person can live in defiance of its goals and spirit. It is said that one can live as a "hedonist by license of the Torah." Whether one uses Rashi's perspective that being holy means avoiding particular forbidden immoral acts or the Ramban's interpretation that being holy involves self-restraint and refining man's nature, one still wonders about the need for a special commandment that we be holy. The Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that there is a mitzvah in the Torah that we must emulate G-d — "and you shall go in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9).

The question is, does emulating G-d include the charge to be holy just as G-d is holy? On this question Rabbi Shimon Shkop of blessed memory goes to the heart of this problem. He quotes the Midrash (Va-Yikra Rabbah 24), "You may have thought you could be as holy as I am holy, My holiness is greater than your holiness."

We might have thought that we must attempt to emulate G-d totally in the matter of holiness. The Torah therefore specifies that G-d's holiness is unique and inimitable in its loftiness. What is the Midrash telling us? What could it mean to imitate G-d completely and why the admonishment not to even try?

Shkop examines the difficult enigma of what we mean when we declare that G-d is holy. He presents a classic definition of holiness and our ability to imitate this quality. He teaches that the essence of G-d's relationship with this world is that all that G-d does is for others. There is no act or word of G-d that stems from any need of His own. His every act by definition is altruistic and this is the essence of His holiness.

According to this approach, both Rashi and the Ramban's interpretations can be understood. How can we say that we are emulating G-d by avoiding either forbidden behavior or excess in that which is permitted? Obviously, He has no prohibitions and the idea of excess in no way can be applied to Him. If we think, however, of all behavior forbidden to us and the lack of moderation in those behaviors that are permitted to us as a kind of perverse self-indulgence, then we may begin to understand the mitzvah of "You shall be holy" in the sense of emulating G-d. Just as G-d does nothing except for the good of others, so should our behavior be free of prodigality and self-gratification.

This, however, is where the Midrash warns us not to try to imitate G-d too closely. Our sages remind us that G-d has cautioned us, "Your holiness will never be exactly as Mine."

Humans dare not ignore their own needs entirely. The Shaarei Yosher said, "Do not try to suppress your ego and personal needs entirely as this is unhealthy and unnatural. Instead, seek to expand them by intensifying your "self" to include an ever-growing group. At first your "I" may incorporate only your family. As you grow in holiness you may come to encompass your entire community.

The insight of this week's parashah of Kedoshim is that the holiness required of us is a uniquely human endeavor. We are to participate in human activities while retaining a healthy and stable sense of "self." At the same time, we are mandated to invest our egos and our exploits with holiness. A tall order to be sure, but one that our Creator created us capable of achieving.

Shabbat Shalom.