What Division Between Holy and Human Means


Much of the Book of Leviticus seems preoccupied with holiness. After listing all of the laws of kosher and non-kosher animals, the Almighty — in the Torah portion of two weeks ago, known as Shemini — commands the Jewish people not once, but twice to "be holy because I am holy."

So, too, this week: After listing forbidden relationships, the Torah commands that "you should be holy" because God is holy. Then, after outlining several prohibitions in regard to idol worship, the Torah again instructs, "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy." Finally, at the end of our double Torah portion, the Almighty summarizes the preceding laws: "You shall be holy to Me."

Of the eight times the Hebrew word for "holy ones," kedoshim appears in the entire five books of Moses, five of them can be found in Leviticus. But if the command is so ubiquitous, why would tradition see fit to name a Torah portion after it, especially as it comes alongside such other important commands as honoring parents, providing for the poor and maintaining a system of civil justice?

The commentaries note that the beginning of parshah Kedoshim was conveyed by Moses to "the whole Israelite community," one of the few times that Divine commandments were transmitted directly to the entire people. The typical method was for Moses to teach Aaron, who would teach his sons, who would teach the elders, who would teach the people, but here, the command to be holy was relegated to a position of preeminent importance.

Quoting the Midrash, Rashi says that here, holiness is so important, because most of the Torah's laws are predicated on achieving a state of holiness. In that vein, we can understand all of the prohibitions against illicit relations, un-kosher foods and pagan practices: If holiness is a state of separateness, a state of being reserved for a Divine purpose, then it makes sense to remain separate from the base desires and immoral acts of the rest of the world.

Nahmanides sees things a bit differently. While he agrees in principle with Rashi's explanation, he argues that we'd be able to understand the concept of separateness from the first appearance of the command to be holy, when it follows the kosher laws. Being holy, he asserts, involves far more than separating from those things the Torah has already prohibited and identified as impure.

There's nothing inherently wrong, from a strict, legal standpoint, with kosher wine and properly slaughtered meat, for example. But you can still get drunk drinking Manischewitz and behave like a glutton while sitting at the Shabbat table. True holiness, Nahmanides says, involves minimizing the permitted.

We can see this lesson supported by the juxtaposition of this week's two Torah portions. Moving from the death of two of Aaron's sons — whom some commentaries say lost control of their souls because of an intense desire to serve the Almighty –Moses lays out the laws of proper service in the Holy of Holies. The message here is that while it's OK to want to cleave to the Divine, man's true purpose is to work with the world, not escape from it.

But the physical world, even when subjected to the laws separating everything into classes of pure and impure, kosher and treif, is not without dangers. A person could get so consumed by the physical that he or she loses sight of the spiritual.

And so, the second Torah portion comes to remind us that the ultimate goal is to be holy, to affect the world and not to be affected by it, and by doing so, revealing the spiritual reality within.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. Email him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.