Parashat Kedoshim begins with the famous command of “kedoshim tiheyu” – “You shall be sacred.” The two most common explanations of this command are those presented by Rashi and the Ramban. Rashi, based on Torat Kohanim, explains that the Torah speaks here of refraining from forbidden sexual conduct, limiting oneself to permissible sexual relationships. To substantiate this interpretations, Rashi points to several instances where the concept of “kedusha” (“sanctity”) is mentioned in reference to sexual restraint. Later in Sefer Vayikra (21:7-8), where the Torah introduces the restrictions on whom a kohen may marry, it adds, “for I am the Lord who has declared him [a kohen] sacred” – indicating that a kohen’s special stature of kedusha requires special restrictions with regard to marriage. Similarly, Rashi explains, the command of “kedoshim tiheyu” refers to the sanctity of resisting temptation, controlling our base desires and refraining from forbidden sexual activity.
The Ramban, in one of the most famous passages in his Torah commentary, explains this command differently. He notes that although Rashi’s understanding appears to be based on Torat Kohanim, there is an important difference between Torat Kohanim’s formulation and Rashi’s comments to this verse. Torat Kohanim explains “kedoshim tiheyu” to mean “perushim tiheyu” – that we must live with self-discipline and self-restraint. Rashi seems to have assumed that this refers specifically to restraining sexual urges, though, as the Ramban observes, Torat Kohanim makes no mention of this particular form of restraint. Accordingly, the Ramban explains that “kedoshim tiheyu” commands us in a more general sense to limit our indulgence in worldly delights. While we are certainly entitled and encouraged to enjoy worldly pleasures, the Ramban understands “’kedoshim tiheyu” as warning against excessive indulgence. As the Ramban famously writes, without this command, it would be possible for a person to strictly adhere to all the Torah’s laws while still living an unholy life, spending his time pursuing physical pleasure instead of devoting himself to loftier endeavors. “Kedoshim tiheyu” instructs that we must avoid preoccupation with even technically permissible worldly delights, so that we live noble, dignified, “holy” lives dedicated to the service of the Almighty.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski boldly suggested that these two understandings of the Biblical imperative “kedoshim tiheyu” are, in fact, very closely related. In order to withstand temptations, Rav Twerski writes, one must cultivate within himself a “sense of kedusha,” an awareness of his inherent sanctity. Rav Twerski draws a comparison to the way any religiously-conscientious Jew would immediately recoil at the thought of bringing a sacred article – such as a Torah text or pair of tefillin – into the restroom. An awareness of these articles’ unique stature of sanctity is so deeply ingrained within our minds that we could never allow ourselves to defile that stature by bringing it into a restroom. Rav Twerski writes that when we develop a similar awareness of our own inherent sanctity, stemming from the divine image with which we are all endowed, we would never allow ourselves to defile that sanctity through indecent behavior. We are more likely to successfully exercise self-restraint if we live with a keen awareness of our noble and sacred essence, which must be maintained and must not be violated through indulgence in sinful pleasures.
The way this sensitivity is cultivated, Rav Twerski writes, is found in the Ramban’s understanding of “kedoshim tiheyu.” If our religious devotion is limited to the technical observance of the laws, scrupulously fulfilling our formal duties and avoiding prohibited acts, but we excessively indulge in, and place inordinate emphasis upon, physical enjoyments and material comforts, then we are, in Rav Twerski’s words, “devoid of kedusha.” As the Ramban warns, it is possible to live an unholy life even while remaining within the technical limits of Halakha. And when we do so, Rav Twerski writes, we fail to develop what he calls “a feeling of kedusha,” an awareness of our inner sanctity which is necessary to withstand sinful temptations. In this sense, Rashi and Ramban do not argue, but rather express two aspects of the same requirement. We are to cultivate an awareness of our innate stature of kedusha through avoiding excessive preoccupation with worldly pleasures, and this awareness will, in turn, help us overcome the challenges that arise in our quest to adhere to the Torah’s code of decency and morality.