You Shall be Holy…

by | Apr 18, 2014 | Torah Thought

What does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to be a people that stand for something and represent greatness? What does it mean to be instructed by G-d to be a “Holy nation?” In this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, we are instructed to be exactly that. G-d speaks to Moshe and tells him to speak to the entire Jewish people and say, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your G-d.” (Leviticus 19:1-2)

Reading the Torah we find 613 commandments. There are many times when G-d speaks to us and tells us to do certain things, act a certain way, eat or not eat certain foods or celebrate certain days in particular ways. This command, however, is not commanding a specific action, but rather an attitude. This command is instructing us how to live our lives as Jews. We can do all the rest of the commandments found in our holy Torah, but if we are not holy people then why are we doing them?

On Succos we wave a lulav and esrog. On Yom Kippur we do not eat. On Passover we eat matzah, but what is the action associated with this commandment of “being holy?” One approach to this question is offered by the Ramban, otherwise known as Nachmanides. The Ramban suggests that while most commandments in the Torah are specific actions, this command of “kedoshim te’hiyu,” “You shall be holy,” is a commandment that applies to all of the other commandments and living in general. The Ramban states that one could live a life that is seemingly complete with mitzvah observance, but behind the scenes may not be holy at all. One could look at such a person and see, “A religious and pious person.” Truth be told, however, that person may not be moral, ethical, or otherwise scrupulous in his or her business dealings or interpersonal communications. Such a person may be “getting credit” for doing lots of commandments, but missing out on what defines the Jewish people as a moral nation and, therefore, personally void of credit for doing those commandments properly. A Jew, however, who is doing commandments for the right reasons, making decisions that are consistent with Jewish moral teachings, and living their life as a “holy” person is rewarded as being a person who is correctly performing this mitzvah of “kedoshim ti’hiyu.”

The mitzvah of kedoshim ti’hiyu teaches us that one has to be holy and good in every aspect of their life. When a Jew makes a decision they should have the strength to look into their holy books, speak to holy people, and make holy choices. We should listen to the Torah and live Judaism instead of simply performing commandments without understanding why. Living a holy life and being a holy person comes from first recognizing that we come from a holy heritage and putting stock and value into that heritage.

As we come out of the Passover season and head towards Shavuos, the time when we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, we should all consider how we can add more holiness into our lives, how we can make decisions based on our Torah values, and how we can add this commandment of kedoshim ti’hiyu into everything that we do.

In just a couple of short weeks my son, Yitzi, will, G-d willing, become a Bar Mitzvah. My wish for him is that every decision he makes will be made through the lens of a person who is trying his best to keep the command of kedoshim ti’hiyu in the front of his mind.

—Rabbi Gershon Litt, executive director, Norfolk Kollel