Holiness in the World

  • Harav Yehuda Amital



Parashat kedoshim


Holiness in the World

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“Speak to all the congregation of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” (Vayikra 19:2)


Seemingly, when we refer to God as “holy,” we can only mean it in the transcendent sense: God is removed and separated from all that is familiar to us in this world. It is therefore difficult to understand what is meant by the demand that we, too, should be holy. How can we expect man to be removed and separated like God? The mission appears impossible: God is truly removed and separated, while we – mere mortals – are inseparably part of this world!


A further difficulty arises from the continuation of the text. The mitzvot which the Torah goes on to list are not those we usually associate with the idea of holiness. Following the introductory demand for holiness, we would expect to find the Torah demanding that man separate and isolate himself, since this is what we mean by “holiness” in relation to God. To our surprise, what we find is something else entirely: keeping away from improper sexual relations, honoring parents, avoiding deceit, etc.


The answer to both questions may lie in understanding a most fundamental message the Torah seeks to convey. There are people who think that in order to progress in the service of God it is necessary to “connect.” What they usually mean is that a person should strive for maximum self-fulfillment in this realm, even it involves deviation from accepted societal norms. What this week’s parasha comes to teach us is the opposite: in order to be holy, there is no need to sever oneself from one’s surroundings. Rather, one should serve God specifically from within one’s world, through the most seemingly trivial actions. To honor one’s parents in the proper way is to be holy; to tell the truth is to be holy; and so on.


The path to achieving closeness to God does not pass through strange and unusual behavior. Rather, it covers the routine, day-to-day actions which a person encounters all the time. Although God is holy in the transcendental sense, He commands us to be holy within the world and to sanctify what is in it. It is paradoxically only in this way that we are able to cleave to the trait of holiness that we associate with God.


Ramban discerns a different message in the command, “You shall be holy.” In his view, the Torah is telling us that we must seek the message behind the mitzvot, rather than sufficing merely with the level of its formal normative instructions. If, for example, there are so many prohibitions concerning food, then apparently the Torah does not want a person to eat excessively and to treat food as a central value in his life. If there are so many prohibitions concerning sexual relations, then this too is an area in which we should avoid excess. These conclusions are not spelled out explicitly, but they arise from the text. A person should pay attention to the messages which arise from the Torah and try to fulfill its unwritten instructions, too.