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The Holy Connection

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

God spoke to Moses saying: "Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." (Leviticus 19:1)

A very inspiring commandment. But what does it mean?

Does it have any independent content, or is it no more than a general injunction to observe the other commandments? Is it a statement of the overall purpose of observance rather than an injunction to do something? What does it mean to be holy, anyway? Suppose I was to wake up one morning freshly imbued with the desire to attain holiness, how would I go about it?

Nachmanides approaches the commandment as having a dual aspect – as a statement of purpose, but one with independent content.

Just prior to this commandment, the Torah gives us a list of prohibited forms of intercourse. In this injunction to holiness, the Torah declares that to connect with God, the observance of those commandments is not sufficient, however stringent such observance may be. To connect to God you have to attempt to attain holiness.

We can be fully observant without necessarily being very different.

The lesson of the commandment to be holy is that we can be fully observant without necessarily being very different than the rest of the world in terms of pursuing materialism or leading a life devoted to consumption. We can open restaurants that are up to cordon blue standards and yet are strictly kosher. We can dress our wives and daughters in the latest fashions without violating the letter of the laws of modesty. We can aspire to live in mansions and drive fancy cars and spend our vacations in romantic far away places without violating any of the strictures of the Torah in the slightest degree. In short, observance does not foreclose the possibility of leading a materialistic life.

In fact, there is even a downside to observance in this regard. Whereas the non-observant person who engages in such a lifestyle has no illusions that he is leading a spiritual life, the strictly observant person who engages in the same life with minor variations might easily conclude that because he is observing the Torah commandments to the letter, he is immersed in spirituality even as he drowns in materialism. It is to forestall this attitude that the Torah urges us to holiness.


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Holiness is separation from the passion for materialism. It is a turning away from this physical, material world, and turning towards God. The focus of observance is not technical compliance with a set of injunctions. The focus is to connect with God. Whoever adopts this quest as his goal cannot possibly fall into the error of mistaking mere observance for holiness. He is bound to understand that unity with God cannot be reached through materialistic consumption. So says Nachmanides.

Thus according to this opinion, which is also the opinion of Rashi in his explanation of this verse, the injunction to holiness is primarily linked to the end of Parshat Acharei Mot (where the prohibited forms of intercourse are listed) as well as to the end of Parshat Kedoshim (which also enumerates prohibited physical relationships).

Maimonides in the "Eight Chapters," his introductory work to Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers"), seems to maintain a different opinion, which also serves to highlight the Torah concept of human holiness. In Chapter 6 of this work, Maimonides studies an apparent contradiction among Torah authorities regarding the definition of the attributes of the superior human being.

He presents us with two individuals. One is naturally drawn towards the performance of good deeds, and carries them out with genuine enthusiasm and the true pleasure of self-expression, while the other is only able to perform his good deeds after a difficult inner struggle with an inherently evil nature. For this person the performance of good deeds is accompanied by the anguish of self-denial and conflict. Both of the individuals lead a life of virtue and good works. Which of them is superior?


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Maimonides presents the opinion of the philosophers that a desire for evil is a spiritual blemish; therefore the righteous individual who performs his good deeds only as a result of victory over his evil impulse cannot be compared to the person who has no trace of evil in his makeup. Maimonides finds support for this view in the book of Proverbs, where King Solomon writes, The evil soul desires evil ... performance of justice is a joy to the righteous (21:10,15). On the other hand, Maimonides finds support in the oral tradition for the contrary view. "Whoever is greater than his friend has a greater inclination towards evil" (Sucah 52a); "the reward is always commensurate to the effort" (Avot 5:23).

Maimonides proposes that there is no contradiction.

Maimonides then proposes that there is no contradiction. Man has two sorts of negative drives. He has a drive towards physical pleasure and materialism for its own sake, and he has a venal side, a drive towards savagery - he can harm others through murder, theft, slander etc. when it means a personal profit. And when it comes to the drive towards materialism, the greater the inner struggle, the better.

According to Maimonides, following the injunction to holiness necessitates a battle on two different fronts:


  1. In terms of his attraction to physical pleasures, the righteous person is enjoined to struggle against forbidden forms of behavior, rather than simply separating from the desire toward such behavior.



  2. In terms of his pursuit of holiness, the righteous person must embrace the uprooting of the very desire toward the commission of all venal acts.


An attempt at tracing the rationale for this view leads to the following:

Where the forbidden activity is inherently pleasure stimulating, the desire towards it does not interfere with our ability to connect to God. Such desires originate in the body rather than the soul, and the body was fashioned by God to find pleasure in various forms of stimulation. To destroy the body's ability to find stimulation in inherently pleasurable sensations is to destroy God's work in the attempt to render the fulfillment of His commandments easier to execute, and there is no merit in such destruction.

The desire for the commission of forbidden acts where there is no physical pleasure to be had in the act itself, such as in the case of murder or theft or slander, obviously originates in the intelligence, or the soul. The body is only drawn towards acts that are inherently pleasurable. It does not even plot in anticipation of future pleasures, but merely satisfies present desires. All matters involving planning necessarily originate in the intelligence or the soul. When the soul is deformed, a person's inherent Godliness is affected. Morality is a soul function. The body is amoral.


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Our notions of holiness, and the Torah's approach, are close to being diametric opposites. We perceive holiness as akin to asceticism, immersion in a life of contemplation and physical self-denial, while the Torah finds no contradiction between the attraction to physicality and holiness. It is only excessive indulgence that inflicts spiritual damage.

The Book of Numbers deals with the problem presented by the nazir, a person who chooses to abstain from certain bodily pleasures (such as wine, for example). In certain circumstances the nazir has to bring a sin-offering to the Temple. The Talmud asks:

Toward what person did this Nazarite sin? [He sinned against himself.] He denied himself the pleasure of wine. From this we can extrapolate; if the nazir, who only denied himself the single pleasure of drinking wine is considered a sinner, how much more is this true about a person who denies himself pleasure in general and engages in a life of asceticism? (Talmud, Nazir 19a)

In the area of physicality, holiness consists of reigning in the raging life force to follow God's commands. The more power in the life force that is placed under restraint, the greater the sanctification of God's name. But a reduction of the life force itself is a sin, as it necessarily curtails the possibility of sanctifying God's name.

Thus our common perception of holiness diverges from the Torah's in the area of physicality.


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There is another aspect to holiness as understood by the Torah, to which the modern mind finds great difficulty in relating. For holiness cannot be attained in isolation. Holiness is a public function. The verse commands us to be holy "for I, the Lord your God, am holy."

The commentators all ask, "How can God present His own holiness as a reason for human holiness?" By definition Divine holiness is unattainable for human beings. One cannot be holy "exactly" like God. The commentators explain that God is referring to the possibility of connection.

By definition Divine holiness is unattainable for human beings.

Because both God and Israel desire a close human-Divine relationship, God commands Jews to be holy. He cannot connect to the Jewish people when they are in an unholy state. The commandment is addressed to the Assembly of Israel not to the Children of Israel as is customary.

Nachmanides explains that this portion was read to the public during Hakhel, the once in seven year gathering of the entire Jewish nation when the reigning monarch would go over the most important commandments with the populace.

When the consequences of non-observance are referred to at the end of Parshat Kedoshim, they clearly have a public aspect.

You shall observe all my decrees and all My ordinances and perform them; then the land to which I will bring you to dwell will not disgorge you. Do not follow the traditions of the nation that I expel from before you ... I am the Lord your God who has separated you from the nations. (Leviticus 20:22-24)

God connects with the individual in the context of the Jewish people. For example it is well known that the reciting of Kedusha, the prayer to sanctify God's name requires a quorum of ten Jews. Only a slice of the Jewish public can aspire to bring down the Shechina, God's Presence, on their camp.

It is this fact that poses the greatest problem to the modern mind, committed to tolerance and the allowance of civil liberties at all costs. For the modern person, holiness is a private matter only. As far as the public domain is concerned, the promotion and pursuit of moral values is at the very least distasteful if not downright illegal. The way someone else dresses, the way he talks, the way he raises his family, his moral values and his philosophy of life are absolutely none of society's business. A person's practices in the privacy of his own bedroom are not a proper subject of interest for society.

Yet according to the teaching of the Torah, this point of view is incorrect. My neighbor's pursuit of these "private" activities will result in the land disgorging the entire Jewish nation. Thus everyone will suffer the consequences of my neighbor's moral misdeeds. Under these circumstances, no one can say that they are none of my business.

But isn't this too great a price to pay? Wouldn't a public interest in morality necessarily reverse all the progress toward civil liberties we have made as a society since medieval times?

The answer to this question depends on how we view public safety. The reason that we have relegated morality to the private sphere is because in our perception, we cannot cause harm to each other by making private moral choices regarding sexual behavior and the like. As long as this continues to be our perception of the world, our view of civil liberties is unlikely to change.

But the lesson the Torah is attempting to teach is that our physical security very much depends on our moral choices. The security of Israel depends on the strength of its connection to God, and this in turn depends on the state of holiness of the Jewish people. But according to the Torah, this holiness depends as much on what we consider private behavior as on those laws directed at the curtailment of mendacity which we all understand to come under the public domain.

The price of maintaining a holy versus a secular society must be paid in some curtailment of civil liberties.

The price of maintaining a holy versus a secular society must be paid in some curtailment of civil liberties. Just as secular society recognizes the disturbance of the peace as a social offence, a holy society recognizes a social offence called the disturbance of holiness.

In the Torah view of the Jewish nation, the only aspect of the Jewish people that renders it unique and entitled to a homeland of its own, is its commitment to establish a connection with God by maintaining a holy society.

Such a connection reverberates to the benefit of all humanity. When God connects with the Jewish people, the entire planet acquires a Divine connection. When the connection to God is torn asunder by a retreat from holiness on part of the Jewish people, not only does the land of Israel disgorge its Jews, but the entire planet loses its claim to Divine attention.

The public atmosphere of holiness is extremely delicate and can be easily shattered. In the modern secular world most of the behaviors that would shatter it are protected civil liberties. To buy into the lessons of Kedoshim we have to equate spiritual injury with physical damage. To the Torah, the connection to God is not a matter of private conscience but a phenomenon that is very much a part of the real world. Causing spiritual harm is at the very least equal to causing physical damage. It cannot be protected behavior.

The focus on civil liberties is a focus on the negative. We must not oppress, we must not discriminate, we must not violate anyone's rights. But the fact that poverty and ignorance is endemic in our inner cities, the fact that in many neighborhoods in America people are justly afraid of stepping outside their houses after dark, leaves us undisturbed. It is not our business to improve people. We have neither the right nor the resources.

The Torah aims for more. The Torah aims for a holy society, where the very atmosphere makes certain forms of behavior toward one's fellow unthinkable. Maimonides points to two sorts of holiness. But in the end they must come together. The holiness of the soul, the freedom from the very tendency toward venal desires, is consistent with a desire toward physical pleasure, but is not consistent with overindulgence. Israel can only be a "light unto the nations" when it is connected to God - the Jewish people need to be holy.

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