What Does Being Holy Mean? Acharei-Kedoshim

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 254ff; Vol. XII, p. 91ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Acharei-Kedoshim, 5745

Is There Any Gray?

When many people start thinking about a religious code, they almost automatically envision a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” Defining things in black and white like this makes Divine service an easier challenge. When a person knows what he is commanded to do and what is forbidden, his task is straightforward. True, he may face hurdles, but the knowledge of what is “right” and “wrong” makes it easier to overcome them, and the determination to do what is “right” arouses powerful inner potentials.

Moreover, even if one fails, knowing what is “right” is important. There is always the ability to correct one’s conduct through teshuvah, sincere repentance. When a person has an absolute code of right and wrong, he will be conscious of any transgressions he has committed. This will prompt him to sincerely regret his conduct, and endeavor to rectify it.

But life is not all black and white, and neither is the Jewish conception of Divine service. To take a simple example, the choice of kosher food constitutes merely the beginning of our Divine service with regard to eating. Even when food is kosher, a person must eat with the intent of using the Divine life energy contained in it to serve G-d.

It is the same with life as a whole; even a person involved only with permitted matters, and who takes pains not to violate any prohibitions, may be overindulgent and self-oriented. To guard against this, the Torah commands us: “Be holy,”1 i.e., conduct ourselves with thoughtful reservation, making certain that “All [our] deeds are for the sake of Heaven.”2 And on an even higher level, we should endeavor to “Know G-d in all [our] ways.”3

This approach is fundamental to Chassidic thought. In Tanya,4 the Alter Rebbe identifies “every act… that contains no forbidden aspect… but is not performed for the sake of Heaven… even when it is a need of the body, [necessary] for its very preservation and life” with kelipah. This term literally means “shell” or “husk,” and is employed by the Kabbalah as the term for evil. For just as a person may involve himself with the shell or husk of a fruit, instead of with the fruit itself, so too, a person may be concerned with the superficial, material aspects of the world, and ignore its G-dly core. And since he is thus not serving G-d, he is at that moment separate from Him.5

Involvement, Not Asceticism

This concept sheds light on the Jewish conception of holiness. The Hebrew word kedosh , meaning “holy,” implies separation;6 a distinction must be made between the Jewish approach and a secular approach to any particular matter, as is stated at the conclusion of our Torah reading:7 “You shall be holy unto Me, for I, G-d, am holy, and I have separated you from the nations to be Mine.”

Such a distinction is unnecessary with regard to the ritual dimensions of the Torah and its mitzvos. These are clearly distinct; there is no need for man to do anything further. Instead, the focus of our Torah reading is on concerns shared by all mortals. Thus the reading relates laws involving agriculture, human relations, business, and sexual morality. For it is in these “mundane” areas that the holiness of the Jewish people is expressed.8

Judaism does not understand holiness to be synonymous with ascetic abstention. Instead, it demands that a person interact with his environment, and permeate it with holiness.9

“You Can Be Like Me”

On the other hand, kedushah, “holiness,” also refers to a level above material existence to the G-dly light which is by nature separate and distinct from our human frame of reference. But although this holiness cannot be perceived by our mortal senses, it is not entirely beyond our grasp.

This concept is reflected in a Chassidic interpretation of the following Midrashic passage:10

It is written:11 “Be holy.” Does that mean that you can be like Me [G-d]? The verse continues: “since I, G-d, your L-rd, am holy”; My holiness is greater than your holiness.

Chassidic thought,12 however, interprets the Hebrew wording יכול כמוני translated as “Does that mean that you can be like Me?” as “This means that you can be like Me”; i.e., every human being can achieve a level of holiness equivalent to that of G-d Himself.13 Since every one of us possesses a soul which is “an actual part of G-d,”14 and “I, G-d, your L-rd, am holy,” every one us can attain the highest peaks of holiness.

Indeed, mankind can even enhance G-d’s holiness, in a manner of speaking, as our Sages state:15 “If you make yourselves holy, I will consider it as if you have sanctified Me.”

Inside Out

These two concepts are interrelated. Because a person possesses an “actual part of G-d” within his being, it is possible for him to appreciate and express holiness on all levels, even within the confines of material existence.

Moreover, this inner potential drives every individual to continually seek higher rungs of holiness. Just as G-d is unbounded, transcending all levels, so too, every person can ascend to ever-more-refined and elevated levels.

Holiness Afterwards

Parshas Kedoshim is often read together with Parshas Acharei. As explained,16 Acharei underscores the development of an inner connection with G-d. But Acharei also speaks of what happens afterwards that this bond should not be an insular experience, but should continue and spread outwards.

This is complemented by the lesson of Kedoshim, which highlights the possibility of living a life connected with G-d amidst the realities of ordinary existence. To do this, a person must focus on the G-dly life force which maintains existence, and which is manifest within its physical elements. This enables one to infuse holiness into every aspect of one’s life.

The above concepts are particularly relevant in the present age brief moments before Mashiach’s coming. In the Era of the Redemption, the G-dly core within every individual will be exposed, as our Sages comment:17 “In the future age, all of the righteous18 will be proclaimed as holy, as G-d is proclaimed holy.”

The attainment of this state depends on our efforts to show refinement and holiness within our lives at present. For these efforts serve as catalysts, precipitating the Redemption’s dawn.

1. See the commentary of the Ramban on Leviticus 19:2, the beginning of our Torah reading. See also Sefer Charedim, which interprets the charge “Be holy” as one of the Torah’s positive commandments. Note also the Rambam’s introduction to his Sefer HaMitzvos, shoresh 4, where he explains that “Be holy” is an all-encompassing command, referring to our Divine service in its entirety.
2. Avos 2:12.
3. Proverbs 3:6. See In the Paths of Our Fathers, p. 61 (Kehot, N.Y., 1994), which discusses the distinctions in the paths of Divine service implied by this verse and the teaching from Pirkei Avos mentioned previously.
4. Ch. 7.
5. See Tanya, ch. 6.
6. See Ibid., ch. 46.
7. Levitcus 20:26.
8. See the Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, which explains that the name Sefer Kedushah (“The Book of Holiness”) was given to this text which concerns itself with forbidden sexual relations and forbidden foods, “for it is with regard to these matters that G-d has endowed us with holiness and separated us from gentile nations.”
9. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 3:1.
10. Vayikra Rabbah 24:9.
11. Leviticus 19:2.
12. Meor Aynaim and Or HaTorah (Kedoshim 105ff), commenting on the above verse.
13. This interpretation is also reflected in the commentary of Rashi to Leviticus 11:44: “Just as I am holy… so you shall be holy.”
14. Tanya, ch. 2.
15. Toras Kohanim, commenting on Leviticus 19:2.
16. See the previous essay, entitled “Souls Afire.”
17. Bava Basra 75b.
18. And this refers to all members of our people, as Isaiah 60:22 states: “Your people are all righteous.”
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