FRIDAY, April 27th

At the opening of Parshat Kedoshim, the second of the two parshiyot we read this week, Hashem tells Moshe to say to the people “You shall be holy for I, Hashem your God, am holy.”  Two questions arise from this statement: first and foremost—what does it mean to be holy?  And second, what is the connection between the holiness of God, who is perfect and the holiness that can be achieved by mere humans?

Rashi addresses the first of these questions by saying that to be holy means to abstain from forbidden sexual relationships, as indeed we find the mention of forbidden relationships not only within this parsha but in other places where the concept of kedusha (holiness) is mentioned.  The problem with Rashi’s explanation is that it fails to address the second question.  If holiness means refraining from forbidden sexual relationships, what does that have to do with the holiness of God?  Furthermore, there are other mitzvot mentioned immediately following the commandment to be holy that have nothing to do with forbidden relationships, such as the mitzvah of revering one’s father and mother and observing Shabbat, the prohibition on idolatry, and instructions for making gifts to the poor.  Rashi’s explanation fails to account for why these mitzvot should also be associated with the idea of kedusha.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) offers a slightly different explanation that can help us understand both how our kedusha connects to that of God, and why all these mitzvot should be mentioned here.  According to the Ramban, “You shall be holy for I, Hashem your God, am holy” means that just as God is transcendent, separated from this world, so too, we are commanded to be separated.  Separated from what?  For Ramban this means that even with foods and relationships that are permitted, we are not to behave disgustingly, overindulging our desires.  He says that a person who spends all day long gorging on kosher food, getting drunk or engaging in other behavior which is unseemly, though techincally permitted, is a “naval birshus haTorah (a degenerate with the permission of the Torah).”  Kedoshim Tihyu (You Shall be Holy) means that keeping the letter of the law is not enough; we are commanded, above all else, to behave like menschen, like decent upright people, which means not overindulging in even permittd pleasures.

For a Jew, it’s not enough to ask “is this permitted or forbidden.”  We must in addition ask “even if this is permitted, is it the right thing to do?”   Our task is to seek, in all our actions, to sanctify the name of Heaven.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein