Rabbi Mayer Twersky

You Shall Be Holy

Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to the: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God (Vayikra 19:2)

Upon reflection, this verse poses, inter alia, two questions. Why is it necessary to append the final word(s) "your God"? After all, there is a Mitzva of imitatio dei, to emulate the ways of Hashem (1). Thus, it would have seemingly sufficed for the Torah to state, "you shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem". Since Hasem is holy, the mitzva of imitatio dei mandates that we too be holy. Moreover, is not the entire verse superfluous? The Torah does not specifically mandate that we emulate each of Hashem's attributes. Rather the general imperative of imitatio dei encompasses all such divine attributes. And accordingly we are thereby commanded to be merciful, compassionate, etc. without a special verse specifically stating so (2). Why then does the Torah emphatically single out the quality of holiness?

The answer to this question presupposes a precise understanding of kedusha (holiness). What is kedusha ? Rashi, commenting on the aforementioned verse "you shall be holy", explains, "abstain from sexual immorality ... because wherever you find abstention from sexual immorality you find holiness". Ramban (3) interprets the directive of holiness more broadly as a charge to refrain from materialistic excess and hedonistic practices. The common denominator of Rashi and Ramban is that each one offers a phenomenological description of a life of holiness. What, however, is holiness? The answer, entirely consistent with Rashi and Ramban's phenomenology of holiness, is provided by the biblical exegete, Seforno. "You shall be holy - that is, eternal, resembling the Creator may he be blessed". (4) Seforno establishes an equation between holiness and eternity. Thus, to be holy means to be forever preoccupied with that which is true and enduring, and to resist the allure of that which is illusory and ephemeral, thereby becoming worthy of eternal life. Hence, the phenomenology of holiness described by Rashi and Ramban. Involvement with sexual immorality and even the indulgence of lust signify the ultimate preoccupation with that which is transient and ephemeral, the very antithesis of holiness.

Seforno's equation between holiness and eternity prompts a profound set of philosophical questions. Is man genuinely capable of cultivating holiness? Can this attribute of Hashem be emulated? After all, the very name Hashem signifies eternal existence. (5) Man, by contrast, is finite and corporeal. Does finite and corporeal man truly posses the capacity for holiness?

The verse we are studying presents the Torah's response. "You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God". Hashem who is holy is our God; He exercises divine providence; He established a covenant with us. He is involved with the world, with us. Hashem's covenant with us - "for holy am I, Hashem your God" - attests to the fact that we are capable of cultivating holiness. Hashem who is holy would only establish a covenant and intimately associate Himself with a goy kadosh (holy nation). (6)

Thus our verse "you shall be holy, etc." encapsulates a religious philosophy of man. Lest one think that holiness is excluded from the mandate of imitatio dei, lest one think that only Hashem in His numinous transcendence can be holy, the Torah proclaims, "you shall be holy" - i.e., you can be holy and thus you must be holy, because "holy am I, Hashem your God" - i.e., my covenant with you attests to your capacity for holiness.

It is most remarkable how the Torah's theological principles and conceptions dictate her revolutionary philosophy of man. Our belief that Hashem is involved with us as a covenantal partner indicates that we have been given the capacity for cultivating holiness - i.e. eternity.

Moreover, Hashem's covenantal involvement with us also demonstrates how He wants us to cultivate holiness. Just as Hashem who is holy is not only transcendent but also immanent, involved with us and our this worldly existence, so too our pursuit of holiness does not imply withdrawal from this world to a monastic existence. Surely, the pursuit of holiness stresses the intrinsically spiritual activities of studying Torah and fulfilling mitzvos, but it also encompasses involvement with the seemingly mundane. The Torah challenges us to be holy within this world. The Torah bids us to sanctify ourselves not by neglecting to pursue our livelihood and attend to corporeal needs, but rather by doing so le-shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven). Accordingly, the quest for kedusha requires penetrating self-introspection. We must ensure that our mundane involvement and the degree of such involvement are truly l'sheim shomayim, as a bridge to eternity and not entrapment within the ephemeral.


  1. Vide Ramban Hil. Deos 1:5-6 based inter alia on Shabbos 132b and Sota 14a.

  2. ibid.

  3. ad loc.

  4. Commentary to Vayikra 11:2. Vide also commentary to Vayikra 11:45.

  5. Vide, e.g., Ramban and Seforno to Shemos 20:1

  6. Vide Shemos 19:6

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