Does Holiness Come from Self-Restraint?

We achieve nobility and holiness through practicing self-restraint.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Commentary on Parshat Kedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27

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 parsha, 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 you must:

Separate yourselves from sexual immorality. (Leviticus 19:2)

Rashi connects the previous parsha (Ahare Mot)’s warnings against sexual immorality with the beginning of Parshat 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.

Excessive pride, gluttony and sexual improprieties are destructive forces that eliminate our nobility. Once we can demonstrate self-restraint, we can slowly attain dignity, and then even holiness. By constant reflection we can refine ourselves and ultimately become closer to God. During the process of developing nobility through self-restraint we inevitably help our friends, community and the world at large.

My mother’s directives as well as God’s are to be learned through osmosis. We learn by observing our role models and experience. Moreover, by internalizing the Torah and its halakhic (Jewish legal) values we transform ourselves into dignified, noble people. Our parents, teachers and friends who display compassion and self-restraint deepen our sense of humanity and consequently our holiness. Conversely, the athletes, actors and politicians who exhibit ruthless and brutal selfishness erode our sense of nobility.

Kedoshim Tihiyu” is on endless trial and we have the wherewithal to issue a spiritual and ethical verdict on the decree, as our rabbis tell us in Tractate Megillah (25a), “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven.”

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