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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Kedoshim Tihiyu: The Obligation to Internalize Halachic Values and Adopt a Halachic World View

Parshat Kedoshim begins in unusual fashion when Moshe is charged to assemble and address the entire nation ("daber el kol adat Benei Yisrael"). The midrash notes that this Torah section was directly conveyed to Kelal Yisrael because it establishes critical Torah principles ("gufei Torah teluyin bah"). The Ramban and Ibn Ezra develop another midrashic idea that this parshah parallels the aseret ha-dibrot.

However, instead of an obviously profound communication that would justify the need for a special convocation and that would account for this parallel to the aseret ha-dibrot, we read simply of the obligation to cultivate sanctity, "kedoshim tihiyu". How does this basic requirement to seek holiness constitute a major tenet of Judaism that also reintroduces a repetition of the aseret ha-dibrot?

To appreciate the significance of "kedoshim tihiyu" it is important to realize that cultivating kedushah pervades the Jewish consciousness on both a national and individual plane.  "Ve-atem tihiyu mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh" succinctly encapsulates our national aspiration, while striving for kedushah is a personal mission driven by the most fundamental theme of imatatio dei (imitating Divine conduct) - "ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeichem."

While Rashi and the Rambam mostly focus on the need to be scrupulous in resisting sin and temptation generally and specifically as it relates to the issue of arayot, the Ramban projects the obligation to cultivate kedushah as a fundamental approach to halachic life. He formulates kedoshim tihiyu as the requirement to strive to internalize halachic values, insuring their application beyond the obligatory norm. He seems to extend this analysis to argue that kedushah relates to the cultivation of a religious personality ("aval ha-perishut hi…she-baaleha nikraim perushim"). Indeed, the Ramban strongly condemns individuals who abuse and exploit the halachic system by scrupulously observing the letter of halachic law, ever the while trampling on its fundamental values and contravening its most sacred principles. Kidoshim tihiyu, as understood by the Ramban, demands that we not only punctiliously observe halachic law but that we embrace a broad halachic worldview.

In Vayikra, the Ramban (parshat Emor) explains Sabbath observance based on this doctrine. In his commentary on Devarim, the Ramban applies his perspective to the domain of civil law and the definition of justice and righteousness ("ve-asita ha-yashar ve-hatov"), as well. He reiterates that the Torah addresses man both in terms of specific obligations and broader values that are rooted in these details. Each of these dimensions constitutes a critical component in avodat Hashem. Specific halachic obligations provide an objective structure and sanctify specific actions while broader principles reflect a deeper sense of purpose, intensify halachic commitment, and shape individual identity. Torah study is the primary vehicle that enables the internalization of halachic values. In this sense, too, Torah study is a supreme pursuit (keneged kulam), as it is the linchpin for achieving the objective of kedoshim tihiyu.

We may now better comprehend the unusual introduction of parshat Kedoshim. The communication of kedoshim tihiyu is simple yet enormously profound and ambitious. It qualifies as "gufei Torah" and justifies both a national convocation and a reiteration of the themes of the asseret ha-dibrot. Parshat Kedoshim evokes the event and themes of mattan Torah within the framework of a newly articulated motif that establishes the Torah as a system of binding values that are reflected and rooted in but not restricted to specific halachic norms. If we embrace this aspiration both as individuals and a nation, we will merit the appellation "mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh" based on the inspiration of "ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeichem".

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