Another fundamental Torah principle is the curtailment of self-gratification in permissible matters, and certainly in forbidden ones. From this [abstention] we can anticipate two extraordinary results: Firstly, excessive physical pleasure coarsens a person, as is known. This is why we are forbidden to eat reptiles, insects, carrion and treifot, since any inherently coarse substance, if ingested, debases and obstructs a person’s mind and heart.

On the verse,1 “You shall be defiled by them,” Rashi comments, “You shall be clogged up by them.”2 So, too, a base manner of eating, i.e., indulging in one’s food, coarsens a person. The soul that G‑d has given to His people, Israel, is inherently pure and refined, “for the portion of the L‑rd is His people,”3 but it operates through the medium of a human body.

When one is scrupulous in the above-mentioned matters, a person’s brain and heart automatically become pure and refined, allowing the soul’s light to shine forth, truly refining and purifying each matter. Furthermore, the soul’s delicateness can then be palpably sensed. Not so if one is careless in the above. Then, because of its coarseness and grossness, the body is insensitive to anything refined; it remains unaffected by the soul. Secondly, through meticulous observance of the above, one achieves self-effacement, a fundamental prerequisite to many things. Arrogance, conversely, is the source of all evil character traits.4 Many particular levels apply here, as I will explain later.

Aside from the actual fulfillment of a mitzvah with self-subordination and with the intention to fulfill G‑d’s will, a person must be mindful that all of the Torah’s commandments serve to purify and refine man. Each positive precept possesses its own particular role in a person’s purification, while the prohibitive precepts, in general, have the specific task of ensuring an individual’s purity. Every instance of purification, though, is contingent upon one’s prior self-effacement [for its effectiveness]. Hence, only an individual devoid of ego can truly refine his attributes. And such lack of ego is characteristic only of one who has obtained a broad understanding of Torah, and who has cultivated the fear of G‑d within him.5 The importance of this [edifying property of mitzvot] is underscored further when we consider the interdependency between a person’s divine service, accompanied with concentration and deed, and his praiseworthy relations with his fellow man.6

Of supreme importance: All the positive character traits and moral values spoken about in the Torah are obligatory upon each and every person to fulfill truthfully in actual practice. For the true G‑d fearing person wholeheartedly believes that they were all given by G‑d at Mt. Sinai. The essential purpose of Torah is deed. As our Sages have asserted,7 “It is better for one to have his placenta turned on his face than to learn Torah and not to fulfill it.” Further, they have averred,8 “Anyone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his [good] deeds, his wisdom will not endure.” On this the Midrash Shmuel comments:

Needless to say, in his exertions to perform a mitzvah, such an individual fulfills all that which he knows [he is clearly obligated]. Moreover, when there are matters he is uncertain of, not knowing the relevant law, he is strict with himself, so as not to stumble over a biblical prohibition. . . . The wisdom of such a person will endure. . . . But if his wisdom overshadows his deeds, meaning, he fails occasionally to fulfill even what he knows he is obligated, then even his wisdom will not endure. For the principle purpose of wisdom is [its final expression in actual] deed. . . . And primacy is granted not to the expounding of a law but to its] actual fulfillment. “A vote was taken in the academy, and it was decided that study is superior to deeds for it brings to deed.”9

HaChassid10 writes, “Anyone who fulfills more than he has learnt, receives reward for the deed and the wisdom. For wisdom that does not culminate in deed is not wisdom at all.”11

Therefore, the G‑d fearing person who is careful to comply with G‑d’s word, will strive with all his might to fulfill all that the Torah requires, and to do so honestly, without deceit. For a person’s whole purpose is the purification of his animalistic character-traits.

(This is also the meaning of the verse, “for is the tree of the field a man. . . ?”12 A human being, as is known, possesses elements of the inorganic, vegetative and animal. His inanimate aspect is the “letters” of thought and speech. His emotions belong to the vegetative class, for they grow in size; hence, the angels of Yetzirah are referred to as grass.13 The “animal”14 aspect within man is his wisdom, for “wisdom enlivens,”15 as explained elsewhere. This is the import of the Scriptural comparison of man to a tree [a member of the vegetative class].

For man’s wisdom and intellect [are secondary in this respect, since they] are intended to edify his emotions. Man must transmute his animalistic traits into G‑dly ones. He thereby benefits not only his spiritual bond with G‑d, but also his interactions with the community around him, as noted above, and will be explained further, G‑d willing.)

All this can be accomplished only by one whose heart’s inner core feels the fear of G‑d: he stands up to all opposition, and strives with all his might to transform each and every aspect of his animalistic nature, in accordance with G‑d’s command.

As is evident, man is born with natural traits that gravitate more towards evil than to good. (By “good” and “evil,” I mean that which Jewish philosophers call “good and evil,” or “beautiful and shameful.”16 In light of the above and what will be explained later, it is understood that truth and falsehood are also contingent upon good and evil.17) This is more readily observed in the behavior of children. Because of their yet undeveloped intellect, they follow their emotions and, as we can see, have a stronger propensity to evil.18 In this, various grades exist: Some have natural emotions that are hard as cedar wood; others have emotive-traits that are soft as reeds, and being young, these children readily conform to the guidance they receive. Yet, even so, the general nature of all children is as described above. Further discussion on this point is unnecessary, since this is obvious.

Accordingly, the Alter Rebbe discusses, at the end of chapter one of Tanya, the good and evil traits inherent in the animal soul. Afterwards, in chapter seven, he writes that the preponderant [aspect of the animal soul] is evil, with just a small bit of good mixed in with it. Thus the principal labor of man is to refine his natural emotions and transform them to good.

In doing so, he distinguishes himself from animals which also possess natural emotive-traits. If a person, however, fails to refine his character, abandoning it to its natural state, then he is no different from an animal. A person is thus obliged to refine and transform his character traits. But aside from achieving this elementary refinement, he must enhance and perfect his emotions as well, as I shall explain.

This is what the Torah enjoins us, “You shall be holy: for I the L‑rd your G‑d am holy.”19 The Ramban explains:20

The Torah has admonished us against forbidden foods and immorality, but has permitted sexual relations between a man and his wife, and the eating of kosher meat and wine. If so, a sensual individual could consider this a license for passionate addiction to sexual intercourse with his wife, and to be among wine-bibbers, among gluttonous eaters of flesh,21 and to speak freely all profanities; thus, he becomes a sordid person with the [ostensible] sanction of the Torah!22 Therefore, after having listed the matters which He prohibited altogether, Scripture follows with a general command that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted. [For example:] One should minimize sexual intercourse, similar to that which the Rabbis have said,23 “So that Torah scholars should not be [intimate] with their wives as often as roosters.” . . . He should also sanctify himself [to self-restraint] by using wine in small amounts. . . . Likewise he should guard his mouth and tongue from being defiled by excessive food24 and by lewd talk.

Now that which the Ramban writes is thoroughly explained in the Akeida.25 In essence, he explains that corporeal pleasures fall into one of three categories: prohibited, permissible and necessary. Correspondingly, the first sort [of people] do anything they desire, without regard to its permissibility. The second sort of people avoid the forbidden but indulge freely in the permissible—regardless of the necessity—acting despicably while hiding under the guise of Torah conformity, as noted by the Ramban.

People of the third group, however, shun even the permissible, except when absolutely necessary. They first judge each matter to determine its actual need. An individual in the second category is not deemed holy. Just because one doesn’t steal, commit violent acts, engage in illicit sex or murder, is he to be called holy? But a person in the third category, one who judiciously restrains himself from excess, he is called holy—like Rabbenu HaKodesh “who never put his hand below his belt,”26 or Rabbi Yochanan [ben Zakai] who “never spoke a word needlessly,”27 and so on.

This, then, is the meaning of “You shall be holy.” For the negation of an attribute is significantly different from the deduction of an attribute from its opposite.

For example, if we say negatively that the water is not hot, we are not forced to infer the opposite, viz., that it is cold. For negation [of an attribute] does not logically imply its diametric opposite. It only negates. In this example: Not hot. Possibly warm. If we assert, however, that the water’s temperature is the opposite of completely hot, we must infer [that the water possesses an attribute which is] the complete opposite, viz., that the water is completely cold.

Accordingly, the Torah’s prohibition and rejection of shameful acts such as incest, theft, robbery, dishonesty, etc.—that is, the Torah negates what it prohibits—does not imply that one must necessarily act in the opposite manner. Rather, one might reasonably conclude that the Torah condones the indulgence of permitted acts, and commands us only against offenses; one might argue that the Torah does not command us to be holy. Therefore the Torah says, “You shall be holy,” and “Sanctify yourselves and be holy,” implying that one’s behavior should reflect the antithesis [of indulgent behavior], i.e., to be of the third sort. The diametric opposite of licentiousness is not to place one’s hand under one’s belt.

The same is true for abstaining from prattling, and as a matter of course, from prohibited speech. In general, holiness entails limiting physical gratification except when necessary for the sustenance of life. This is what the Torah means by, “You shall be holy.” For the Torah’s initial exhortations against forbidden and repulsive behavior require us only to exclude ourselves from the first category of people mentioned above. But it would, conceivably, still be permitted for us to belong to the second group. To this end, Scripture says, “You shall be holy,” meaning that we should entirely separate ourselves from self-indulgence.

In other words, the verse instructs us to be of the third sort. This is also the meaning of what it says in Tanya: 28 “To sanctify oneself in the permissible is a Torah precept, as it is written, You shall be Holy, and You shall sanctify. . . ,” as noted above.

On the verse, “You shall do what is fitting and good in G‑d’s eyes,”29 the Ramban comments:

Our Sages cite a beautiful exposition on this verse. They comment, “This refers to the principles of equitable compromise, and going beyond the letter of the law.”30 The meaning of this is that while at first the Torah said that you shall observe the statutes and commandments which He commanded you, it now says that even in that which He did not instruct you, you shall take heed to do that which is right and good in His eyes, for He loves that which is right and good. After the Torah specified many laws [pertaining to human relationships], such as commandments concerning tale-bearing and slander,31 taking revenge,32 bearing a grudge,33 coming to the aid of a friend who is in danger,34 refraining from cursing another individual35 and rising before an elder,36 the Torah then expressed this general rule, to do that which is right and good, which includes the concepts of equitable compromise and going beyond the letter of the law.

Further, [this verse is the basis for Rabbinical ordinances] such as granting a neighbor prior purchase prerogatives on an adjoining field,37 and even [those statements of our Sages which instruct us] to maintain an unblemished reputation,38 and to speak pleasantly with people,39 so that the individual might be regarded as perfectly righteous and ethical in every way.

Thus a person should refine his natural character traits to the extent that all his deeds will be exemplary, i.e., he sanctifies himself even in permissible activities. Simply refraining from forbidden and shameful conduct cannot be construed as exemplary behavior, for a person merely shuns that which is inherently repulsive.

By virtue of not violating the following prohibitions, for example, a person’s behavior cannot be deemed to be impeccable: stealing, robbing, cheating, false denial of liability, lying, swearing falsely, holding back wages, cursing a deaf-mute, placing a stumbling block before the blind, judging unfairly, tale-bearing, standing idly by the blood of your friend, harboring hatred in your heart for your brother..., taking revenge, bearing a grudge, divining, soothsaying, employing faulty weights or scales, engaging in illicit sexual relations, speaking coarsely, cursing one’s father or mother even after their death; similarly, violating the prohibition of eating insects, reptiles or unclean animals; and in general, all the transgressions involving defilement; also those things which the Torah forbids, such as the consumption of blood, carrion, treifot, milk and meat mixtures, orlah, kela’yim, shatnez, rounding the corners of the hair on one’s head, and idolatry.

All of these acts are repugnant and destructive to the soul in the extreme. Hence abstaining from these cannot be regarded as exemplary, especially since we have already been sworn to observe them [at Mt. Sinai]. If a person, however, sanctifies himself even in the permissible, as Scripture dictates, “You shall be holy,” meaning to be separated and removed from the forbidden, namely by circumscribing and sanctifying himself in what is permissible, then such a person behaves in an outstanding manner and can truly be regarded as holy.40

Sanctity also applies to the performance of a positive precept, as we recite in the blessing before all mitzvot, “Who has sanctified us with His commandments. . . .” That is to say, a person should not be satisfied with merely discharging his obligation, but he should embellish the body and core of a mitzvah, along side its actual performance. Most importantly, when performing a mitzvah, a person should devoutly intend to carry out the will of He who gave the command, and not inject any material self-interest.41

This may be explained according to what Rabbenu Bachya writes at the beginning of his commentary to parshat Kedoshim. He observes that holiness entails separation from the four manifestations of desire, namely: (1) in thought, (2) in speech, (3) in eating and (4) in bodily matters.

In thought: neither to contemplate nor think evil thoughts. (As our Sages averred, “Sinful musings are worse. . . . Such an individual is not admitted into the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He.”42 For sinful musings are the source of all types of impurity, and [by entertaining wicked thoughts] a person draws down upon himself all manner of evil [influences] and impurity. The thoughts of such an individual are bound up with evil—may G‑d save us.

To remove this type of evil is much more difficult than to cleanse a soul of the soil and impurity caused by actual sin—may G‑d save us.43)

In speech: not to slander, gossip or use vulgar language.

In eating: not to be drawn by the pleasure of food, even when eating kosher food to quiet one’s hunger.44

In body: not to be drawn after desires of sexual intercourse, even when permissible, for indulgence is sinful. Rather [one should limit oneself in terms of frequency] to what is necessary.

How a person applies sanctity in the aforementioned four areas can be readily understood from what has been explained. Sanctity of thought entails exercising extreme caution to avoid anything that arouses unseemly thoughts. The Reishit Chochmah observes45 that the following senses can, if unsupervised, lead one to sinful thoughts: vision, hearing, smell and speech.46

Sanctity of speech entails not only the abstinence from forbidden talk, but also the curtailment of idle talk—like Rabbi Yochanan [ben Zakai] who never spoke needlessly.

Sanctity in eating means a person limits the consumption of food to what is required; this, too, should be specifically for the sake of Heaven, in order for him to study and pray.

In body, sanctity means that one’s marital relations are holy and pure, and that he is circumspect with anything that might arouse his body, as was Rabbenu HaKodesh who never placed his hand below his belt.47