Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Parashat Kedoshim places before us one of the most difficult commandments in the whole Torah–not kashrut or Shabbat, nor even the rules of sexual conduct, but rather the admonition and expectation to “be holy.” Throughout the Torah, we are given rules and statutes that tell us what to do. Here we are told what to be. We find a similar statement in Exodus 19:6, commanding us to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.” But what does it mean to be holy? Kedoshim does not tell us. The guidance that the parashah gives us is in the specifics: the “who, when, why, and how” of the injunction.
First, who is to be holy? The entire people is addressed: kol adat b’nei yisrael; all Israel is told: “You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy” (I 9:2). Not just the priests or Levites, not only the women or men, but everyone is part of this command to be holy. The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Moshe Alshech asks why such important rules as the ones that follow upon this verse are not taught person by person, group by group, rather than to one large assembly. He suggests that the opening of Kedoshim emphasizes the ability of any Jew to attain even the highest and noblest principles of Judaism; thus these laws, and the paradigm of “holiness,” are not only for a select few, but for everyone.
When are we to be holy? The verb tih’yu in verse 2 can be read–and is often read–as a command (“be holy!”). But it is grammatically a future form (“you shall be holy”). The implications are: “Be holy–now! And you shall be holy–in the future.” Thus holiness is a daily struggle, in the here and now, as well as a future yearning.
Why are we to be holy? Because God is holy. The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Obadiah Sforno notes that this verse teaches us that we are to remember and act “in the image of our Creator,” as much as that is possible. Philosophers refer to this concept via the Latin term imitatio dei. We try and “imitate” the Divine. As God cares for the widow and orphan, so do we. As God rests on the seventh day, so do we. In imitating God we can achieve a higher sense of purpose and our actions will reflect the ongoing concern of the Divine for the world. In imitating God’s holiness we make holiness our behavioral ideal.