Parshas Acharei Mos-Kedoshim
April 23rd-24th, 1999
8 Iyar, 5759
I sat down to study parshas Kedoshim with someone in the community this week, and--as
sometimes happens--we never made it beyond the first couple of verses. Hashem
spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to
them, You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your G-d.
(Leviticus19,1-2; Artscroll translation)
I asked him what it means to be holy. After some hesitation and a failed attempt to
pass (You tell me what it means, Rabbi), my thoughtful friend suggested the
following: It means to be special. Thats an answer (or the start
of one) which many would offer, I think, and its got some truth. The Hebrew
root, kadesh, certainly denotes being set apart, designated for a special use.
Although it typically means set apart for a sanctified, godly purpose--as with
hekdesh, the word for objects belonging to the Temple--, it can also appear in the
opposite context: kedeshah is one of the words for prostitute in Hebrew, for a prostitute
is (starkly) set apart from the rest of humanity for a designated purpose.
I pressed on with my friend. How do we get to be holy?
Because G-d chose us as His people, he
responded. Were holy because G-d chose us.
My friend is quite aware that the Torah contains many
commandments (mitzvos), and is most respectful of traditional observance. Yet,
interestingly, he didnt read the verse, You shall be holy, as a mitzvah,
but, rather, as a plain statement of fact about the nature of the Jewish people.
Because G-d chose us, we will (automatically) be a holy people in this world.
The Torah looks at it differently, however. Its true that the mere fact that
Hashem chose us as His people gave us a permanently unique role and station among the
peoples of the world; whats more, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, where the entire
Jewish nation heard the voice of G-d (including the neshamos of unborn generations,
according to tradition), certainly infused our souls with, one might say, a special
potential for holiness...as did the towering deeds of our forebears, whose spiritual
attainments continue to have an effect on the souls of their descendants. (This idea
is found throughout the writings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler--see, for example, Volume II of
Michtav MEliyahu, pp. 111-12.)
But, by and large, it would seem that kedushah is not something we inherit on a silver
platter; we must attain it through our actions. Therefore, the Torah could (and did)
specifically command us to attain holiness. Unlike my friend, the traditional
understanding of the verse quoted above is that it is a directive, a mitzvah: You shall be
In a beautiful lecture that directly addresses this
issue, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, ztl (the famous Alter of Slabodka), cites Chapter
11 of Vayikra to show that the Torah clearly expects us to perform--and refrain
from--specific actions in order to attain the status of holiness. There, the
Torah gives an extensive list of animals we may and may not eat, concluding with the
exhortation: ...you are to sanctify yourselves, and you shall become holy. (11, 44;
my emphasis) By observing the laws of kashrus, we are sanctifying
ourselves--incorporating kedusha into our souls. And not, he points out, if we
refrain from eating forbidden animals simply because of natural repulsion, an inborn
refinement (itself an inheritance from our ancestors): ...rather, we are obligated
to mold ourselves by means of our actions, that is to say, to transform our existence into
a texture of holiness by means of fulfilling mitzvos of separation (prishus).
(Ohr Tzafun: III, p. 11)
In other words, we become holy when we actively
refrain from eating non-kosher animals because it is a mitzvah to do so.
Although Rav Finkel does not mention them specifically,
a few verses we say every day leap to mind. In the third paragraph of Shema, which
talks about the commandment to wear tzitzis, we recite:
And it shall be tzitzis for you, that you may see
it and remember all the commandments of Hashem and perform them; and not explore
after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray. So that you may remember
and perform all My commandments; and be holy unto your G-d. (Numbers: 15,
Could there be a clearer connection than that of the
need to ACT in order to become holy? Holiness is a result of keeping the mitzvos:
performing the positive commandments, and refraining from the activities prohibited by the
negative commandments--to which we are summoned by our straying hearts and eyes.
If there is one aspect of human experience that needs particular sanctification for us to
attain kedushah, it is certainly our sexuality; while the temptation of cheeseburgers
should not be underestimated, most peoples eyes and minds do most of their straying
after illicit sexual (and not gastronomic) pleasures.
Indeed, the Midrash takes note of the juxtaposition of the command to be holy at the start
of Kedoshim to the list of forbidden sexual relationships at the end of Acharei Mos.
It comes to teach you that every place that you find a fence [or, protective
measure] against immorality, you find kedushah (holiness)...[and] anyone who makes
restraints for himself against immorality is called [by the Torah] kadosh
(holy)...(Vayikra Rabbah: 24, 6) Rashi, in fact, quotes this Midrash in his
comments on the words, You shall be holy.
Clearly, avoiding sexual immorality, and guarding ones eyes and thoughts in this
realm as much as one can, have an especially prominent role in the quest and challenge of
making ourselves into a holy people. Though it seems like a hard task to control what we
see and think, the Talmud assures us that, One who comes to purify himself will be
given [heavenly] assistance. (And I remember one of my rabbis saying that we
wont be blamed for everything we see simply because it happens to enter our field of
Rather, its the second look--not to mention
lascivious gaze--that well have to answer for.)
May Hashem help us truly attain the level of a goy kadosh, a holy nation, through our
performance of the mitzvos. And Shabbos, the day of unique holiness (whose kedushah
we can absorb only if we observe it!), is not a bad place to start.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director
of the the Savannah Kollel and the Savannah
Torah Education Project (STEP).
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
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