The Midrashic text Tanna De-bei Eliyahu (chapter 15) cites the famous command with which Parashat Kedoshim begins – “Kedoshim yiheyu” (“You shall be sacred”), and then comments, “On this basis it was said: Whoever belittles netilat yadayim – this is a bad omen for him.”
At first glance, it appears that Tanna De-bei Eliyahu interpreted this command as referring to the standards of ritual purity that apply to all members of Benei Yisrael, as opposed to just the kohanim. Whereas the kohanim in the times of the Beit Ha-mikdash ate teruma and sacrificial foods, which required a state of tahara (halakhic purity), the rest of the nation is not under any obligation to eat their food in this condition, and are permitted to eat in a state of tum’a (halakhic impurity). The exception to this rule is the obligation of netilat yadayim, which requires all members of the nation to wash their hands to purify them before eating bread. Seemingly, Tanna De-bei Eluyahu understood the command of “kedoshim yiheyu” in this vein, as introducing (or at least alluding to) a requirement upon all Benei Yisrael to emulate, on some level, the high standards of purity maintained by the kohanim, by washing their hands before eating bread. (Indeed, this passage in Tanna De-bei Eliyahu appears immediately following Rabban Gamliel’s proclamation to his disciples, “Sanctity was given not only to the kohanim, but rather to kohanim, Leviyim and Yisraelim.” Rabban Gamliel then cited the command of “kedoshim tiheyu” as the basis for his teaching.)
Rav Moshe Rosen, however, in his Ohel Moshe, suggested a deeper connection between the mitzva of netilat yadayim and the command of “kedoshim tiheyu.” Washing our hands as a symbol of purity and sanctity before sitting down to a meal conveys the vitally important message that the concept of “kedusha” extends to the full range of human activity. Often, we instinctively – but mistakenly – associate “holiness” with ascetic measures, withdrawal from physical enjoyment, and purely spiritual pursuits. The requirement to “purify” ourselves before eating teaches us that the notion of purity must inform the way we conduct ourselves specifically with regard to our mundane, physical pursuits. It requires not abstaining from worldly affairs, but rather engaging in worldly affairs in a refined, disciplined and dignified fashion.
This same message, Rav Rosen observes, is conveyed by Parashat Kedoshim. This section begins with the command of “kedoshim tiheyu,” the obligation to live as “holy” people, and then proceeds to present a wide range of commands, many – or perhaps even most – of which relate to interpersonal, civil matters. Beyond the detailed laws outlined in this parasha, there is overarching message that “kedusha” manifests itself in all areas of human activity, in the way we conduct ourselves among family members, neighbors, work associates and everyone else with whom we come in contact. After concluding its discussion of sacrifices and of the laws of purity that apply to the Beit Ha-mikdash, which occupies the first half of Sefer Vayikra, the Torah now impresses upon us that “holiness” is not reserved for the Temple. The obligation, challenge, privilege and opportunity of kedusha presents itself in every area of life, and therefore, the imperative of “kedoshim tiheyu” is expressed in such a wide variety of laws.
And thus this command, like netilat yadayim, teaches us that the ideals of holiness and purity must inform our conduct throughout every day of our lives, and demand that we act in a Godly, noble and dignified manner at all times and in all activities in which we engage.