Be Holy, For I Hashem am Holy

  • Rav Yair Kahn
Dedicated in memory of
Frieda Heller (Frieda bat Alexander Sender) z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the third of Iyar,
by her granddaughter Vivian S. Singer.


I. Gathering the Entire Nation


Bnei Yisrael arrived at Har Sinai in the third month (Sivan) of the first year (Shemot 19:1), and they set up camp nearby the mountain: “And Yisrael camped opposite the mountain (Shemot 19:2). They remained there for almost a year, not leaving until the twentieth of the second month (Iyar) of the second year (Bamidbar 10:11). During this period, many dramatic events occurred – Ma’amad Har Sinai, cheit ha-egel, the second luchot, building the Mishkan, and the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu.


While camped around Har Sinai, there were a number of occasions at which the entire nation – men, women, and children numbering in the millions – was gathered. Ma’amad Har Sinai is referred to as “Yom Ha-Kahal” (“Day of the Community;” see Devarim 9:10, 10:4, 18:16), emphasizing the singularity and uniqueness of occasions when the entire nation was gathered and inviting us to explain what makes those occasions so special.


Parashat Vayakhel begins with Moshe gathering the entire nation to command them regarding the construction of the Mishkan (Shemot 35:1). This is especially interesting considering that Hashem did not require that the whole nation be gathered to hear this command. Parashat Teruma begins with the standard, “And Hashem said to Moshe saying, ‘Speak to Bnei Yisrael’“(Shemot 25:1-2). Why did Moshe insist on gathering the entire people to instruct them about the building of the Mishkan? Perhaps we can explain Moshe’s motivation for gathering the entire nation by noting that Parashat Vayakhel follows the cheit ha-egel and the second luchot, and at this point, it is critical to inform the entire nation that a more complete expiation can be achieved through the Mishkan (see Ramban, Shemot 35:1). This was not necessary at the point of the original instruction to build the Mishkan documented in parashat Teruma, which (according to the straightforward reading of the Torah) occurred prior to cheit ha-egel.


Another instance of national gathering occurs in the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, which starts, “Speak to the entire community of Bnei Yisrael” (Vayikra 19:2). Our Sages noted that this teaches us that this parasha was given to the nation in its entirety.


Speak to the entire community of Bnei Yisrael – this teaches that the parasha was said at hakhel (national gathering). And why was it said at hakhel? Because most of the Torah essentials are based on it. (Torat Kohanim)


II. Hakhel and Yom Hakahal


The Sages were not explicit regarding which “Torah essentials” they were referring to, which leaves room for various suggestions on the part of the commentators. One popular explanation is that Parashat Kedoshim contains a restatement of the Ten Commandments. This is the position attributed to R. Levi in the midrash:


This parasha was said with all the people gathered because most Torah essentials are based on it. R. Levi said because the Ten Commandments are included in it. “Anochi Hashem Elokekha” [the first Commandment] – and here it says, “Ani Hashem Elokeikhem” (Shemot 19:2). “You should not have [other gods]” [the second Commandment] – and here it says, “Do not make a graven image for yourselves” (Vayikra 19:4). '”Lo tisa” – and here it says, “Do not take an oath with My name” (19:12). “Zakhor” – and here it says, “And you shall guard My Shabbat” (19:3). “Honor your father and mother” – and here it says, “A person should fear his mother and father” (19:3). “Do not murder” – and here it says, “Do not stand on the blood of your fellow” (19:16). “Lo tinaf” – and here it says, “The adulterer and the adulteress should die” (20:10). “Do not steal” – and here it says, “Do not steal” (19:11). “Do not give false testimony” – and here it says, “Lo telech rachil be-amecha” (20:16). “Lo tachmodand here it says, “And you should love your friend like yourself” (20:18). (Vayikra Rabba 24:5)


If the purpose of this parasha is to re-enact ma’amad Har Sinai, the gathering of the entire nation is clearly appropriate. After all, at Har Sinai the Ten Commandments were transmitted to the nation in its entirety.


In this sense, Parashat Kedoshim is similar to another occasion at which the entire nation is gathered – the hakhel ceremony. Once every seven years, at the end of shemitta, the king would gather the people and read from the Torah. In his discussion of this mitzvah, the Rambam writes:


Geirim who are unfamiliar [with Hebrew] are obligated to prepare their hearts and hearken, to listen with terror and fear and tremble with joy, like the day it [the Torah] was given at Sinai. Even great sages who are familiar with the entire Torah are obligated to listen attentively… and one should see himself as if it [the Torah] is being commanded now and he hears it from the Almighty, for the king is a messenger to make the words of God be heard. (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6).


Once every seven years, there is a re-enactment of ma’amad Har Sinai. At hakhel, the entire nation is gathered and the king acts as Hashem’s messenger and reads the Torah to all of Yisrael.


We already noted that ma’amad Har Sinai is referred to as “Yom Ha-Kahal,” the “day of the community,” and we have seen that hakhel, which is reminiscent of ma’mad Har Sinai, requires gathering the entire nation as well. Based on this, we can appreciate R. Levi’s assertion that the factor that demanded the gathering of the entire nation for Parashat Kedoshim is the reference to the Ten Commandments.


However, it is not at all clear why the commandments are repeated here. Moreover, why is the repeat of the Ten Commandments introduced with the statement, “Be holy, for I Hashem your Lord am holy” (19:2)? In order to clarify this point, we will briefly discuss the command of “kedoshim tihiyu” – “be holy.”  


III. Kedoshim Tihiyu


Rashi comments:


“Be holy” – separate yourself from forbidden relations and from sin, for wherever you find separation from illicit relations, you find kedusha (holiness).


According to Rashi, the command to be holy is connected with the prohibition of forbidden relations mentioned at the end of the previous parasha. The idea of kedusha accordingly demands abstinence and control of one’s urges and carnal drives. The sacrificial act of submission to the word of God elevates the relationship between man and woman; instead of defiling oneself through submission to one’s lusts and desires, kedusha is created and the relations between man and woman are redeemed. (For further development of this theme, see Family Redeemed by Rav Soloveitchik zt”l.)


As we noted, Rashi’s interpretation of the command to be holy relates to the previous parasha, and therefore does not seem to be connected to the repeat of the Ten Commandments that follows – and thus does not  seem to be related to gathering of the entire nation.


The Ramban offers a different interpretation of the command to be holy:


The Torah warned us with respect to forbidden relations and forbidden foods, but permitted relations between husband and wife and the consumption of meat and wine. Therefore, the hedonist will find room to be lustfully addicted to relations with his wife or many wives and to be constantly drinking wine and to be a gluttonous eater of meat and to speak freely with all forms of profanity, for this is not prohibited explicitly in the Torah. And behold, he will be a sordid person with the sanction of the Torah. Therefore, after specifying absolute prohibitions, Scripture followed with a general command that we abstain from excesses from that which is permitted… Scripture’s main intention is to warn us regarding such matters, that we shall be clean and pure and separated from the common people who soil themselves with excesses and disgusting things…


According to the Ramban, “kedoshim tihiyu” is an overarching demand that we live a life of kedusha. The Torah lists numerous laws aimed at that goal, which have objective significance and are binding as a divine imperative. However, there is also a divine agenda beyond the letter of the law. “Kedoshim tihiyu” outlines that agenda and demands behavior consistent with it. Could this be a message that justifies gathering the entire nation?


The Ramban himself adopts the position of R. Levi. He notes that the end of the verse, ‘for I Hashem your God am holy,” informs us that we will merit to cleave to Him by being holy. He then adds: “And this is like the first of the Ten Commandments.”  


4. Kedusha and Tahara


It is possible to suggest another interpretation of the command to be holy. Before doing so, let us consider the section at the end of Parashat Kedoshim, where the Torah lists forbidden relations between men and women (arayot). The list of these relationships appears at the end of Parashat Acharei Mot as well, but there are significant differences between the two lists. The most obvious is that Acharei Mot notes the prohibitions, while Kedoshim lists the punishment. As a rule, punishment cannot be administered by the courts when there is no explicit prohibition, and the Torah must therefore document both. But why was it necessary to introduce a separate prohibition section instead of listing the prohibitions and punishments together? 


Closer inspection at these two segments reveal a basic thematic distinction. The arayot section at the end of Acharei Mot concludes with the following pesukim:


Do not bring tum’a upon yourselves in any of these things, for in all these the nations became tamei, which I cast out from before you. And the land was made tameh, therefore I did visit the iniquity upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants. Therefore, you shall keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations… for all these abominations have been done by the men of the land that were before you, and the land was made tamei. The land should not vomit you out when you bring tum’a upon it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whosoever shall do any of these abominations, the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore, you shall keep My charge, that you do not do any of these abominable customs, which were done before you, and that you should not bring tum’a upon yourselves through them, I am Hashem your God(18:24-30)


The conclusion of Acharei Mot is mirrored at the end of Kedoshim:


You shall therefore keep all My statutes, and all My ordinances, and do them, that the land, where I bring you to dwell therein, should not vomit you out. And you shall not go according to the customs of the nation, which I am casting out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said to you: You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am Hashem your God, who have set you apart from the peoples. You shall therefore separate between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean fowl and the clean; and you shall not make your souls detestable by beast, or by fowl, or by any thing that crawls on the ground, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. And you shall be holy unto Me, for I Hashem am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine. (20:22-26)


There is a great deal of similarity between these sections. Both call for keeping Hashem’s statutes and ordinances; both negate the abhorrent behavior of the nations that lived in our land before us; and both warn that if we act like those nations, the land will vomit us out.


Upon noting the similarities, the thematic distinction between these two segments comes into sharper focus. In Parashat Acharei Mot, the major focus is tum’a – the previous nations were expelled from the land because they made themselves and the land tamei, and we must therefore abstain from those abominations, so that we do not become tamei and make the land tamei. In Parashat Kedoshim, this theme is totally absent. In its place, the Torah stresses separation and kedusha. We are commanded to be kadosh – sacred, separated from secular and the mundane. We must be distinct from the other nations in order to achieve kedusha.


Tum’a is something negative. Tahara, the opposite of tum’a, denotes cleanliness and purity, insofar as there is nothing tameh – it is the lack of something negative. Kedusha, on the other hand, is a positive quality. Chol, the opposite of kadosh, means secular or regular – the lack of kedusha.


At the end of Parashat Acharei Mot, the Torah warns Yisrael not to defile themselves and the land through forbidden relations. However, at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, we are introduced to the call to sanctify ourselves and to be kedoshim. In order to accomplish this, we must separate ourselves from the nations that surround us. We must march on a singular covenantal path in order to live up to the vision of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Shemot 19:6).


The list of forbidden relations are repeated, but from a different perspective, the perspective of “Kedoshim tihiyu.” We must live a life of sanctity, separate from the other nations. Failure in this area will lead to the secularization of the nation and its desecration.


Perhaps, this is also the reason for the repetition of the Ten Commandments in Parashat Kedoshim. The entire nation is gathered in order to receive the charge of Kedoshim Tihyu. This charge is not only a local mitzva, but a perspective that affects all mitzvot. The mitzvot have their own rationales, but they are also all part of the covenantal order that consecrates Yisrael, separates them from the other nations and leads to the realization of the vision to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.