Parshiot Acharei Mot-Kdoshim: Individual holiness

The Torah could not set up general rules for everyone since each person has the job of figuring out what God wants of him

April 23, 2015 20:55
3 minute read.

Haredim. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)


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Parashat Kdoshim,which we read this Shabbat in Israel along with Parashat Acharei Mot, begins with a rather obscure statement: “You shall be holy!” (Leviticus 19:2) How are we supposed to become holy? The Torah leaves us to determine this, with the obvious help of the Torah itself, sages and commentators. But first of all, we must determine what “holy” means, and only then can we examine how we should become “holy.”

The Torah’s commentators had much to say about this word. There were those who explained that it was a title of the list of mitzvot that follows; and others who explained that this is a directive that stands on its own. The most famous commentary was given by the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, one of the greatest sages in Spain in the 13th century) in his commentary on the Torah.

According to the Ramban, who uses as a source the words of the midrash, the term “holy” corresponds to the term “ascetic.” Meaning, a person who abstains from some forbidden act is called “holy.” However, if that is true, what is added by the words “You shall be holy” beyond the general directive to live a life of righteousness and values based on the commandments in the Torah? Indeed, there are commentators who did not see this verse as containing any new directive, but rather a repetition of the general instruction to fulfill mitzvot. But the Ramban did not suffice with this explanation and provided us with a new one.

This instruction does not deal with forbidden acts from which we should abstain, but rather with acts that we are allowed to do, and yet the Torah tells us to abstain from them. For example, if a man eats kosher food but does so in a vulgar and exaggerated manner, the Torah instructs, “You shall be holy.” Although the act is not forbidden, we must abstain from it. He who does not abstain from such acts is termed by the Ramban to be naval be’reshut haTorah, a vile person within the boundaries of the Torah.

This explanation seems absurd. If an act is permissible, why would the person performing it be considered vile? And if the act is forbidden, why would it be considered to be within the boundaries of the Torah? How could an act be vile yet not forbidden by the Torah? Actually, the Ramban is responding to a different question. We know that the commandments of the Torah are meant to repair our character and lead us to live lives that are appropriate and good. But alongside this, it is irrefutable that people are significantly different from one another, just as their faces differ so do their opinions, characters and styles. How could it be, then, that those same exact mitzvot will suit all types of people – rich and poor, compassionate and cruel, miserly and generous? If commandments are there to repair us, it would seem that each of us would need different mitzvot suitable for our own character and personal style.

This issue is answered by the words, “You shall be holy.” Indeed, people are different from one another, and the appropriate direction for one is not necessarily suitable for someone else. Therefore, the Torah provides an answer through this mitzva.

By commanding us to be holy, the Torah teaches us that all the mitzvot and prohibitions in it are directives aimed at the common denominator of all different people, and since each one needs the directive suitable for him, the Torah goes on to say that each person must figure out for himself what behaviors – permissible in principle – are those he should avoid due to his personality and character.

The Torah could not set up general rules for everyone since each person has the job of figuring out what God wants of him.

A person could be “vile within the boundaries of the Torah” since the Torah does not necessarily explicitly forbid this behavior, but for this specific person that behavior is forbidden. If he would have examined what behavior is suitable for him personally, he would have reached the conclusion that this act is one from which he should abstain.

Therefore, this directive comes to lead a person to think independently about what is appropriate in general but inappropriate for him. It assigns man the mission of determining for himself – beyond the mitzvot of the Torah – what is appropriate behavior for him. This way, the individual attains wholeness and holiness.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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