“You shall be holy…”
דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם
קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה’ אלקיכם
Speak to all of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy—for holy am I, Hashem, your God.
Question to a fourth grade student: What do you think Step # 7 is about?
Answer: “You take all the steps learned so far and glue them all together.”
We have learned Step #1 through #6 and we know how to treat others according to the instructions of the Torah. We now come to the last and most difficult step: learning how to become “holy” people.
What We Learn From Our Rabbis
Hashem commands all of us to be “holy.” But what does this mean?
The Ramban explains that the Torah warns us to be careful about certain specific, permitted behaviors such as eating kosher food and interacting with members of our family and to practice them in moderation. We are then taught the general rule of holiness. You will recall that in Step #5 we learned the rule of v’asita hayashar v’hatov, which teaches us the general rule of lifnim meshurat hadin—going beyond the requirements of the law. The Ramban is teaching us that kedoshim tihiyu is also a general rule; it teaches us that the Torah is not only concerned with our requirement to fulfill the mitzvot, but also, with the manner in which we perform them, so that they shape our character.
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, rosh yeshiva of Rabbi Issac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, in his article “Kedoshim Tihiyu,” further explains that the Ramban condemns those people who are scrupulously careful about the mitzvot but fail to follow the Torah’s fundamental principles of how we must treat one another. Rabbi Berel Wein teaches us that the mitzvot are like stepping stones on the path to holiness.
As we come to recognize the significant challenge of becoming holy, a question can be asked: Why not simply remove ourselves from the challenges of daily living, and instead cloister ourselves from its pressures? This notion is rejected by the Chatam Sofer and his son the K’tav Sofer, who remind us that this pasuk begins with the following words:
דבר אל כל עדת ישראל
Speak to all of the assembly of Israel...
From this we learn that, on the contrary, the only way we may achieve holiness is by joining together. Rabbi Yissacher Frand very practically explains that there are so many mitzvot, that we simply cannot do them all ourselves. While we must focus on our own performance, we must also work on our relationship with our families and then with the broader society. Successfully observing all the mitzvot is a communal activity.
Let’s turn to the rest of the pasuk. After commanding us to be holy, Hashem provides the rationale: כי קדוש אני ה’ אלקיכם—“For I, Hashem your God, am holy.” Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik refers to this as the concept of imitatio Dei—the imitation of God. In halachic terms, והלכת בדרכיו, and you shall follow in His ways. As we learn in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, v’halachta in this case means that we should strive to emulate some of His characteristics:
- • Just as He is merciful—you shall be merciful
- • Just as He is gracious—you shall be gracious
- • Just as He is righteous—you shall be righteous
- • Just as He is pious—you shall be pious.
However, as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explains, Hashem is Holy in the heavens. Our task is not to be holy like an angel, but to be holy in our observance of those earthly mitzvot that are enumerated in the parsha, such as refraining from stealing, dealing falsely or lying.
The Kotzker Rebbe asks, “What does it mean for a person to be a mentsch?” He answers that being holy is “human holiness” (mentschlichheiligkeit), because the very parsha that starts with “Kedoshim tihiyu” contains the longest list of humanistic laws in the Torah.
Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch offers further practical guidance. He clarifies that learning to be holy results from a person’s effort and discipline, and there are no guarantees of success. We are charged in the Torah to be holy through the observance of the laws. We are “people of holiness,” not “holy people.” On the other hand, Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, of blessed memory (former rabbi of the Young Israel of Scarsdale, New York) explained, if a Jew’s behavior is disassociated from Hashem, he cannot be holy. We must strive to adopt His attributes and apply them to daily life.
Rabbi Saul Berman, professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University and former director of “Edah,” asks how it is possible for someone to emulate God. We can understand the pursuit of holiness in shuls and in batei midrash, but he believes that it is also possible to reach this state in our homes and places of work. We do so when we teach family members and associates to fuse concrete behaviors with concepts like loyalty, patience and tolerance in our speech and actions. Rabbi Berel Wein adds that we should strive toward holiness even when we are doing permissible things. It is reflected in the development of our personalities and can be demonstrated by simply being cheerful and optimistic. He adds that in a time when the concept of free speech has lost all proportions, we strive for holiness by watching our tongues.
As we develop a personality of holiness, we learn an important lesson from Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, rosh yeshiva of Kollel Beis Moshe Chaim in Miami. He said that right after the introductory pasuk of kedoshim tihiyu, the very next pasuk begins with the words איש אמו ואביו תיראו, that a person must “fear” his mother and father. We learn from this that no sooner do we begin the task of making ourselves holy, than we immediately separate ourselves from our “self” and focus on our relationship with others. There are many among us, both children and adults, who tend to see themselves as the center of their universe. By following the laws of this parsha, we learn to focus on our fellow man.
In concluding this section, I turn once again to the Kotzker Rebbe. Quoting from the pasuk in Shemot (23:30)—ואנשי קודש תהיו לי (“You shall be people of holiness to me...”)—he says that before the word kodesh, we find the word “people.” The lesson is clear: First become a mentsch, and only then can you become holy!
Stanley Fischman has been the supervisor of general studies instruction at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was a yeshiva elementary principal for 35 years, and also served as director of general studies at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. Recently he celebrated his 50th anniversary of educating Jewish children. He is the author of “Seven Steps to Mentschhood: How to Help Your Child Become a Mentsch.”