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The Holy Separation

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha (Leviticus 18:3), God charges the Jewish people not to behave like the Egyptians, from whose culture we came, or the Canaanites, who inhabit the Land of Israel. What is the nature of this command? If the point is to steer us away from immoral behavior, the Torah explicitly tells us a few verses later (Leviticus 18:6-30). What does it mean, then, that we are instructed not to act like the Egyptian or Canaanite nations?

Moreover, at the beginning of Parshat Kedoshim, the Torah states, "Be holy" (Leviticus 19:2). Rashi interprets this statement to mean that we must separate ourselves from immorality.

The Tiferet Shmuel (vol. 1) takes issue with Rashi's comment, and wonders: can someone who disengages from immorality really be called "holy"? Imagine a eulogizer at a funeral praising the deceased by saying, "This man was truly holy. Not once did he engage in adultery, incest, or bestiality!" Committing these sins is wickedness; refraining from them seems to be merely maintaining the status quo. How can Rashi understand the statement "Be holy" as a command to stay away from obvious misdeeds?

The Slonimer Rebbe begins to address our question by explaining what it means to act like an Egyptian. In his view, the Torah is not telling us to avoid performing prohibited actions; rather, it is teaching us how to engage in permitted physical activities. Even in the realm of permissible behavior, we must not overindulge or seek out passion for passion's sake, as the Egyptians did. Instead, we must act like Jews, striving to perform every action in a healthy, balanced way, with the ultimate goal of fulfilling God's will.

Nachmanides expresses a similar idea, as he mentions that our Sages (in Torat Kohanim) explain the statement "Be holy" as "Be separate." The Torah permits pleasurable physical activities - eating kosher meat, drinking kosher wine, intimacy between husband and wife - yet someone who is driven by lustful passions may overindulge in these activities while thinking that he is still within the bounds of Torah law. Such a person is called a "glutton" (see Proverbs 23:20). Thus, after Parshat Acharei Mot lists all the specific prohibitions regarding immorality, Parshat Kedoshim teaches us generally, "Be holy." We must separate ourselves from overindulging in permissible activities, curbing our appetites in order to maintain dignity and holiness.

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Based on this idea, the Tiferet Shmuel answers our question of how Rashi can imply that we are called "holy" merely by staying away from immorality. The Talmud states, "Sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you" (Yevamot 20a). Another passage (Avodah Zara 17a) elaborates on this idea, in which a Nazir (one who has voluntarily decided to abstain from wine) is advised not to take a shortcut through a vineyard, but rather to walk all the way around it. Strictly speaking, a Nazir may pass through a vineyard - he is only prohibited from partaking of the grapes. But since walking through a vineyard would put him in such close proximity to the prohibition, a "fence" is necessary to protect him from possible temptation. (See Avot 1:1, which states, "Make a fence for the Torah.")

If we accustom ourselves to avoid overindulgence in that which is permissible, we surely will not engage in prohibited behavior.

According to the Tiferet Shmuel, this is what Rashi means when he interprets "Be holy" as "Be separate from immorality." The words "be separate" indicate that we should curb our appetites even in permitted areas. Then, after restating our Sages' words, Rashi explains the reasoning behind them: "from immorality." The Tiferet Shmuel understands the word "from" to mean "because of." Due to the prohibitions against immoral behavior, we must make a fence around them to ensure that we stay far away from any wrongdoing.

Based on this view, there is no contradiction between Rashi and Nachmanides; both are emphasizing the importance of maintaining holiness even in permitted activities. Furthermore, we can now understand why Rashi's language seemed to differ from that of our Sages. In fact, he uses the same expression ("be separate"), but then adds a reason afterwards.

May we be blessed to escape from the "Egypt" within us, little by little each day, by engaging in permitted behavior in a healthy, balanced way.

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