"You Shall be Holy"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





"You Shall be Holy"

Summarized by Matan Gildai

Translated by David Silverberg


"Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy." Rashi explains that this parasha was to be presented before an assembly of the entire nation "because the majority of the fundamentals of the Torah depend upon it." If so, then we would expect the parasha to begin with mitzvot involving experience and emotional attachment to the Almighty, mitzvot that bring a person to a state of holiness. Instead, we find the mitzva to treat one's parents with reverence and the obligation to observe Shabbat. Then the Torah presents the prohibition against idol worship. Does a person achieve sanctity by merely refraining from idolatry? Perhaps even more surprisingly, the continuation of the parasha deals primarily with mitzvot governing interpersonal relationships - charity, loving one's fellow, theft, gossip, etc.

It seems that the Torah here presents us with a critical message. Before an individual involves himself in emotional attachment to God and seeks spiritual experiences, he must first see to it that he properly observes the basic mitzvot and acts appropriately to those around him. The Rambam writes (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, shoresh 4) that the injunction of "Kedoshim tihyu" should not be included as one of the 613 mitzvot because it relates to the observance of all the mitzvot: "It is as if it says, 'Be holy when you perform all that I command you and refrain from all that I forbade upon you." A person becomes holy through his very observance of mitzvot; one does not need to run in search of experiences. Someone who tries to withdraw from this world in his quest for experiences cannot respect his parents, for example. One becomes holy specifically through his engagement in worldly affairs.

Even the Torah's reference to Shabbat in the very next verse ("and My Sabbaths you shall observe") entails not emotional attachment but rather merely refraining from forbidden activity. The prohibition of idolatry, mentioned in the next verse ("Do not turn to idols"), is understood by the Gemara (Shabbat 149a) as "Al tefanu el midatkhem" - a prohibition against looking upon images of people and animals. The Rambam enumerates this prohibition in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (lo ta'aseh 10), expanding it to include pondering matters related to idolatry. In Moreh Nevukhim (3:51), he has an even more expansive definition:

"When a person stops contemplating in the Almighty, his contact with the Almighty is disrupted. Therefore, the righteous ones are especially careful regarding the occasions when they involve themselves in other matters, as the Gemara says, 'Al tefanu el midatkhem.'"

This phrase in the Gemara is unclear and difficult to understand. (Rashi's explanation is also unclear.) Perhaps we may suggest that the Gemara refers to one who concentrates all his thoughts upon idolatry through activities such as meditation and the like, who invests many hours in search of revelations and experiences connected to idolatry. The Torah here forbids one from adopting such an approach. One should not allow himself to be led into thinking that the quest for these experiences yields any positive results. Sects involved in these activities have not solved any social problems, nor have they improved the world in any way. Before all else, one must observe the basic mitzvot and only thereafter look for spiritual experience and elevation.

Commenting on the words "You shall be holy," the Ramban speaks of another message latent therein. The Torah here teaches us that one must look for the message within the mitzvot of the Torah. If the Torah established so many prohibitions involving food, then apparently it does not want to us to indulge in excessive eating or see eating as a central component of our lives. If the Torah legislated so many laws governing sexual conduct, then apparently it does not want us to excessively engage in sexual relations, even within permissible contexts. Although gluttony and sexual excess within marriage are not explicitly prohibited, their prohibition emerges from the Torah's general outlook. A person must detect the unwritten rules in the Torah, the messages that stand behind the mitzvot, and use these to guide himself.


(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Kedoshim 5757 [1997].)


(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion 1999. All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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