Parashat Kedoshim

The Nature Of Holiness

The commandment to be holy raises questions about our responsibilities towards community and our relationships with God.

Print this page Print this page

"You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). This section was spoken in public assembly. No one can attain holiness except by merging his own self with the whole of Israel. Thus Scripture says: "The whole community, all of them, are holy" (Numbers 16:3). This means that when they are all one, they are holy. Rashi points out that we can be worthy of attaining such holiness only if we merge our own personalities into the larger community and identify completely with the people of Israel. Only "in full assembly" can we be holy (the S'fat Emet).

In imitating God by being a holy nation, Israel must not withdraw from the world of the nations but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living (Martin Buber, B'chirat Yisrael, Bialik Institute, 1964).

There is no truth more thoroughly established than there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage. The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained (George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789).

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies
That, though they never equal stars in size
(And they were never really stars at heart),
Achieve at times a very starlike start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.
(Robert Frost, "Fireflies in the Garden")

Be not holy merely in the privacy of your home and ashamed of your faith in public. Be not, as the assimilationists put it, "a Jew at home and a man outside." Be holy "in full assembly," in public, out in the open, in society. Among your own people or in the midst of strangers, wherever you may find yourself, never be ashamed of your character and sanctity as a Jew (Divrei Shaarei Chayim, Davar B'ito).

The Torah is holy not only because it comes from God but because it leads to God (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001).

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike (Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband).

Your Guide

Leibowitz reads the requirement to be holy as an individual instruction, while the S'fat Emet and Buber see it as a communal responsibility. Which do you think is more important?

Washington does not call for his people to be a holy nation, but he makes a case for national responsibility. How does his statement fit into the framework of this week's text?

"Fireflies in the Garden" by Robert Frost explores an analogy between fireflies and the stars they imitate. How well does this analogy hold up when applied to people striving to imitate God?

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

Please consider making a donation today.

Stuart Binder is the cantor at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, N.J.