Parashat Kedoshim

Nobility On Endless Trial

We achieve nobility and holiness through practicing self-restraint.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

"Be good."

I often heard my mother's words trickle through as the bus doors slammed shut. On my way to school I would sometimes wonder about the vagueness of the directive, but I soon became distracted by pop rocks, last night's baseball scores, and something equally as vague called Watergate. "Be good," "be polite," and "be nice," seemed to dominate my childhood, and yet no one explained how I was supposed to accomplish the moral triumvirate.

In this week's parashah, we find a directive by God that appears just as hazy as my mother's advice:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them:
"You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."
(Leviticus 19:1-2)

Most of the rabbinic commentaries are fascinated with this all-encompassing order. "Be holy." Holiness has a variety of meanings. Are we supposed to lock ourselves away in synagogues or yeshivot [schools] and continually learn Torah? Should we give away all our possessions and embrace the ascetic way of life? Should we meditate in the desert and await a cleansing or purging of our soul and body?

Holiness is Not Easy

No. Holiness is much more difficult than that. Rashi (1040-1104), the sublime commentator, claims that in order to be holy we must:
Separate yourselves from sexual immorality. (Leviticus 19:2)

Rashi connects the previous parashah's (Ahare-Mot) warnings against sexual immorality with the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim's directive to be holy. Rashi finds a few verses in the Torah that demonstrate an explicit connection between the word kadosh (holy) and sexual transgressions.

Ramban (Nachmanides, 1195-1270), however, takes issue with Rashi by pointing to numerous places where holiness is not associated exclusively with sexual immorality. Ramban maintains that the concept of holiness lies in our ability to maintain self-restraint. A Jew who wants to attain holiness must temper his passions and control his desire for excess. A married couple should not engage in marital relations several times a day. We are allowed to eat a kosher steak, but we should not eat seven of them in one sitting. We can drink kosher wine, but not to the point of debauchery.

For the Ramban, holiness is the antithesis of vulgarity. Dignity and a balanced lifestyle are synonymous with holiness. Nachmanides is aware that one could follow all of the technicalities of Jewish Law and still violate this directive of "kedoshim tihiyu," (you should be holy). In his words, one could become a "Naval b'rishut HaTorah," a primitive scoundrel with license from the Torah.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi David Ehrenkranz is a teacher at Maimonides High School in Boston.