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Being Holy, Being Good

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

There is a very interesting sequence that begins this week's parsha. The opening mitzvah is "kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeichem, you shall be holy for I, Hashem your Lord, am holy (Vayikra 19:2)."

What does it mean to be holy?

Rashi interprets it as referring to the mitzvah of forbidden relations (with which the previous parsha ended off). The Ramban has a different explanation, that one not be a naval b'reshus ha'Torah - a crass glutton with the "permission" of the Torah. The Torah allows one to eat kosher meat and drink kosher wine; so, one could theoretically spend his days and nights indulging and eating tons of meat and drinking barrels of wine, acting as a wild animal. And he may say, "I haven't done anything wrong. The meat I ate and the wine I drank were one hundred percent kosher!" To obviate this "permissible" acting like a gluttonous animal, Hashem commands us "you shall be holy for I am holy."

The common denominator of these two explanations is self-control.

The human being has very strong base desires and lusts that can lead him to unbridled indulgence - a veritable animal in human form. We are commanded to exercise discipline to control these desires and use them only for positive goals, such as enjoying a delicious meal on Shabbos to enhance the joy that one feels on that day. In short, we have to maintain human dignity. We must be in control of our desires and not let them take control of us.

The next mitzvah is the command to have awe for one's mother and father. What is the connection between the previous mitzvah of kedoshim tihiyu and the mitzvah of fearing parents?

Chazal explain why the mother is mentioned before the father in this mitzvah: "For the Creator of the universe knows that man naturally fears his father more than his mother, therefore, when commanding a child to fear his parents, the mother was placed first." (1)

Once again, we find ourselves being commanded to reign in human nature. Naturally, a person would not fear his mother as much as he fears his father. Thus, we are commanded to ensure that we do not allow any lack in the fear of one's mother. "But it's human nature!" is not an excuse - we have the ability and we are enjoined to overcome our nature in order to do that which is right.

Then follows the mitzvah of Shabbos. This mitzvah of Shabbos can certainly entail a great measure of overcoming one's desires. One may have a strong urge to continue working on Shabbos because one thinks that he can gain that much more monetary profit. Shabbos requires one to overcome that desire, to remind oneself about what Shabbos is all about - that Hashem created and directs the universe; that it is He Who provides livelihood. Rest; do not engage in any work. Go to Shul, daven, have a beautiful meal with family and friends, say words of Torah, sing Shabbos songs, speak about meaningful topics…experience the spiritual joy of being in Hashem's hands, as it were.(2)

Next comes the prohibition against idolatry.

It is quite hard to relate to an infinite Being Who cannot be physically seen or felt, etc. When you cannot utilize the five senses, it is quite hard to relate. One who has a powerful desire to come close to the Divine may find himself groping for some image, object, or icon to latch onto in order to have a point of focus and concentration through which to relate to the Creator. The Torah teaches us that to do such a thing is also idolatry. Overcome your limitations. Conquer your desire to wrap your mind around everything. Work on it. Achieve the state of being of simple, pure knowledge that the Ribbono Shel Olam is and that He controls all. Learn to be comfortable with the inability to grasp the infinite. Simply know, feel with your heart, and relate. You can control yourself and you must. And by doing this you will succeed!

After that is the mitzvah regarding pigul. The portions of a peace offering that are eaten have a time limitation of two days and one night. When the acts of service are being carried out with the animal, the one performing the task must not deviate from this intention. If he intends to eat from the sacrifice later than the appointed time it becomes pigul - totally disqualified.

About this the verse says, "lirtzonchem tizbachuhu." (3) The second word means shall you slaughter, and the root of the first word means "will" or "desire". The simple meaning of this phrase is that one must slaughter in a way that will gain one appeasement from Hashem for carrying out the service properly by not harboring any invalidating intentions while so doing. On a deeper level, perhaps, it means you shall slaughter according to your will, that the rendering of the sacrifice valid or invalid is dependent on your will, or intent. If one maintains the proper intentions, the sacrifice is valid, and, if not, it is invalidated.

Here, similar to the previous mitzvah regarding the prohibition of idolatry, we are being taught another dimension of self-control. We must be in control of our thoughts and realize that they can make the difference between valid or invalid, acceptable or disqualified.

Next comes a whole series of mitzvos pertaining to interpersonal relationships. Giving tzedakah, not stealing, not lying, and not withholding wages, among others.

Perhaps the juxtaposition is to teach us that one will not be able to maintain proper interpersonal behavior without upholding the mitzvah of kedoshim tihiyu.

"Do whatever you like as long as you do not hurt anyone else" is a dangerously misleading doctrine of modern-day western society. The Torah is teaching us that this is a complete oxymoron, a total fallacy. One who does whatever he likes and gives in to his whims and desires, one who does not conduct his life with holiness - with self-control towards purpose and direction - someone like that is inevitably going to hurt other people in one way or another. If a person is so accustomed to indulging his animalistic desires in pursuit of empty hedonism, it is quite hard to believe, indeed, that when other people inevitably sometimes get in the way of his lusts that he will not somehow come to hurt them. If such a person stands to make a lot of money will he not "cut a corner" here and there? Will he not lie and cheat to get what he wants? Such a person will give generously to the poor of his "hard earned" wealth? He will never wrongly hurt another's feelings if they somehow become an obstruction to his animalism?

There is no question that one who lives life without self-control and discipline, without purpose and direction - without holiness - will very likely, perhaps inevitably, hurt other people. Only through the constant, ongoing attainment of holiness will one truly be able to fulfill his interpersonal obligations as well.


1. Rashi.

2. Even though strictly speaking it is permissible to think about business matters on Shabbos, Chazal greatly discourage doing so.

3. Vayikra 19:5.

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