It is not for naught that the parshah is called Parshat Kedoshim. Holiness is undoubtedly a central motif in the parshah, throughout which expressions connected with holiness repeatedly recur.

This holiness, however, has a surprising aspect. In books that deal with holiness, the deeper they delve into the concept, the more profound it becomes, to the point that it is designated as the loftiest value that exists. As the Maharal explains, holiness is that which is transcendent in its essence.1 By contrast, the concept of holiness that arises from Parshat Kedoshim seems completely different.

The parshah begins, “Speak to the entire community of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, G‑d your L‑rd, am holy.”2 The commandment to be holy appears in the context of G‑d’s holiness: You shall be holy as I am holy. But on the other hand, the commandments connected with this injunction do not appear to relate at all to the sort of transcendent holiness that the Maharal describes. Parshat Kedoshim is full of commandments, which include the prohibitions on stealing, lying, cheating, and so forth. At first glance, they do not appear to be special requirements or standards that an ordinary responsible person could not meet. On the whole, these are practices that are, more or less, commonly observed by the average person throughout the world, irrespective of religion or cultural background.

This puzzling question arises at the end of the section discussing forbidden sexual relationships as well. These laws begin with: “You shall keep My decrees and observe them, for I am G‑d, who makes you holy,”3 and they end with: “You shall be holy to Me, for I, G‑d, am holy.”4 That is to say, one who keeps these laws is called holy. Thus, the same difficulty arises: How is a person who simply refrains from committing a few sins considered holy? Even if one complies with everything that is written here – a certain number of positive commandments and a certain number of negative commandments – is that all that is needed to be considered holy? One would think that attaining holiness would require special safeguards and practices; but from here it seems that as long as one refrains from a few contemptible acts, that is all that is required to be holy. How can this be?

This question recurs throughout the entire parshah. As a matter of fact, this parshah – which begins “You shall be holy” – contains nothing of a particularly holy character, and the definition of holiness that emerges from it is rather modest. It would seem to be devoid of any spiritual demand or attempt to elevate people to a higher sphere.

Earthly view

The list of forbidden sexual relationships in this parshah corresponds to the list in Parshat Acharei Mot, where it says, “Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt…and do not follow the practices of the land of Canaan.”5 The passage concludes:

Do not become defiled through any of these acts; for through all of these the nations became defiled…The Land became defiled; and when I directed My providence at the sin committed there, the Land vomited out its inhabitants…For all those abominations were done by the people who lived in the Land before you, and the Land became defiled. Let not the Land vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you…You shall keep My charge not to engage in any of the abominable practices that were carried out before you, so that you not become defiled through them.6

In Parshat Acharei Mot these practices are presented as utterly abhorrent. Abominations and abominable practices, impure and disgusting – these are acts that the Land cannot tolerate, and it vomits out anyone who commits them. By contrast, when we come to Parshat Kedoshim, there is a significant change in tone. Previously, it said that the Land cannot tolerate one who does such a thing, whether he is a Jew or not; he is crooked, twisted, and perverted. In Parshat Kedoshim, however, although it does say that these are sins and that they bear penalties such as stoning and strangulation, it also says that one who refrains from doing these things is considered holy.

The repetition of the section on forbidden sexual relationships in Parshot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim represents two ways of looking at things. There is the heavenly view, which asks how it is possible to sink so low. But there is also the earthly view, which says that although corporal punishment and other severe penalties still apply here, still, one who guards himself against all these abominations is included in the category of “Keep yourselves holy, and you will be holy.”7

These are two different views of the very same thing. When a person is on a truly high level, there are things that he does not even consider doing; they are simply unthinkable. Parshat Acharei Mot addresses these people. But if a person is on a low level, suddenly everything looks different; suddenly, one who complies with all these laws is called holy. There are many actions that one would generally consider abhorrent and would never consider pursuing. But a person can change, as can his environment, and as a result, what was once easy to avoid can now be an extraordinary challenge. At this point, refraining from such improper behavior is no longer a simple task, but has become a matter of stubborn loyalty to one’s views and principles.

There was a time when the typical pious Eastern European Jew had a beard and wore a long garment; this was a sign of his Judaism. When some of these Jews began to adopt the German style of dress – a short jacket and a trimmed beard – they were called Deutsch (German) by their peers in derision, an expression that indicated that such dress and demeanor were considered contemptible by other Jews. It was clear to the traditional members of the community that these Jews did not observe the mitzvot, and they were often even suspected of being apostates. This attitude was part of the way of life of Jews in Eastern Europe at the time.

In those times, there lived a great hasidic master known as the Ruzhiner Rebbe, who lived in a palatial home. One day, a visitor arrived at his home – one such Deutscher, with a short jacket and a trimmed beard – and he was received by the Rebbe immediately, without all the usual delays. He was granted a private audience with the Rebbe that lasted for hours. Afterward, to everyone’s surprise, the Rebbe came out and personally escorted his visitor to the door. Everyone was shocked; what was the meaning of this? Finally, someone dared to ask the Rebbe: Who was this man who was so honored by the Rebbe? The Rebbe answered: “I asked G‑d to grant me the privilege of seeing the gadol hador (greatest tzaddik of the generation) in which the Messiah will come.”

This story expresses my point precisely. It may very well be that the gadol hador is someone of the type that one would least expect. The appearance of the visitor drew derision from the Hasidim, but they did not realize that in his own place and time he was not only a tzaddik but the gadol hador himself.

The personal secretary of the Kotzker Rebbe once related that when it was brought to the Rebbe’s attention that his spoons were being stolen, he cried out, “Stolen? Is it not written in the Torah, ‘You shall not steal’?!” The secretary then added that when the Rebbe said this, it made a tremendous impression on him – he truly could not understand how it was possible that someone would steal; in the Rebbe’s mind, such a thing was impossible.

But there is another perspective on “You shall not steal” and “You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another”8 – the earthly view. These matters are relevant; they exist in the world. While the heavenly view cannot fathom how people could act in such a way, the earthly view is grounded in reality, acknowledging the way of the world.

The earthly view can descend lower and lower in each generation. Sometimes one reads the descriptions of the most derelict characters from several generations ago, and one asks himself: These are the generation’s most despicable people? Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes that even the most sinful person in our communities nevertheless prays three times a day, wears tzitzit, and puts on tefillin. Nowadays, there are places where such a person would be considered the gadol hador, or if not that, then at least an important person. This is the essence of the earthly view: If a person truly does not steal, he is holy; and if by chance he does not swear falsely as well, then he is truly a righteous and holy Jew.

When the section on forbidden sexual relationships is read on Yom Kippur in the synagogue, it sounds completely different from when it is read in the comfort of one’s home, whether one is poor or wealthy; because when one sits among the people, the words of the Torah become an actual possibility. The more respectable or cloistered one’s place of residence, the less one’s spiritual sensitivity is to the concept of “You shall be holy.” Sometimes, when a person hears, sees, and discovers all these things from below, he finds that being holy is truly not a simple matter.

In the not too distant past, if someone would have said that Jews would leave their homes in the Land of Israel and commit idolatry in a far-off land, this would have sounded preposterous, simply implausible. Why would a normal person go somewhere and bow down before an idol and make an offering to it? Such a thing could not happen.

Now, when one reads through the list of mitzvot in the parshah from beginning to end, it is clear that there are places where this practice is common, widespread in fact, and there are places where such things are done in broad daylight. Suddenly, everything becomes a matter of “You shall be holy.”

After three thousand years, Parshat Kedoshim has become relevant again. The earthly view is no longer far from us. I do not know how our fathers or our grandfathers explained to themselves the spiritual difficulty of being holy, that one who does not commit these acts is called holy. Now, as time has passed and the world has changed, the answer is unfortunately clear.

Resisting jadedness

There is an additional aspect of this same idea that we must address. We read in Micah: “What does G‑d require of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your G‑d.”9 Overall, many of the requirements in Parshat Kedoshim fall under this same overarching message: “Behave like a responsible person.” No more is required.

When we talk about the struggle of life from the perspective of an ordinary person, we speak of two types of enemies. On the one hand, there are overt embodiments of forces of evil. On the other hand, there is a subtler enemy that is no less potent and dangerous: erosion, where nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen.

The Talmud relates an incident in which R. Amram Chasida almost impulsively succumbed to the incredible temptation of sexual impropriety,10 demonstrating that sometimes even a decent and righteous man can suddenly find himself in a situation for which he is unprepared, and he engages in an exceptional struggle with base instinct. There are also other situations where there is no instinctual temptation, but only the slow and continual erosion of life.

The positive and negative commandments that appear here, and which characterize holiness, are things that generally do not suddenly erupt but, rather, are situations that a person gets dragged into gradually, where each time it becomes increasingly easier to be drawn in. Some people gradually become pressured by money. A livelihood is no longer an abstract concept but something very real and very painful. When a person suddenly falls into financial crisis, often this can be dealt with. But this does not always happen all at once. More often it happens gradually, where every day something else goes by the wayside, and it becomes more and more difficult to avoid rationalizing immoral behavior for the sake of supporting oneself and one’s family.

Thus, are “You shall not steal” and “You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another” truly sins that no ordinary responsible person would commit? When faced with a harsh reality, even such a person can become worn down and succumb.

The law of shifchah charufah (a half-betrothed maidservant) that appears here11 likewise fits into this pattern. This is a woman whose status is not exactly clear; she is half slave and half free. Her master succumbs to the temptation to sin with this woman precisely because of this muddled status. She is a half-married slave woman, and it all seems easier and less complicated.

For this same reason, the Torah says regarding the stranger, “Do not wrong him.”12 After all, it is simple to cheat the stranger, just as it is also easy to oppress him and take advantage of him. One might rationalize that what he is doing is not a great sin; he is only cheating the stranger a bit, since he doesn’t know the prices. It is actually beneficial, one may reason, to insult him a little, until he becomes more experienced and ceases to be a stranger. When he becomes a resident of the land, one of us, he himself will do the same to others.

One can see how “you shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds”13 – the law of kilayim – may irk some people, and if there is a grocer who can truly comply with the law of “Do not falsify measurements, whether in length, weight or volume,”14 then to a certain extent he is indeed a holy person. The Tosefta says of Abba Shaul b. Butnit and R. Elazar b. Tzadok, who were grocers in Jerusalem, that they would take special steps to ensure that their customers received the full measure that was due them.15 If this was the practice of ordinary grocers, these actions would not have been singled out in the Tosefta and credited solely to two of the most pious men in Jerusalem at a time when the Temple still stood. This does not mean that all the other people were thieves, only that one is constantly under social pressure not to be naïve. Everyone is tempted to take advantage of his fellow man, and many succumb to this temptation. In such a society, it is easy to rationalize: Everyone steals, everyone lies, and everyone cheats – why shouldn’t I?

Constant erosion, along with the general atmosphere that immoral practices are accepted in society, create a situation in which when one does these things, on a large or small scale, they no longer feel like bad behavior, like sinful acts. Likewise, regarding forbidden sexual relationships, many commentators note that part of the problem stems from the daily reality and proximity. People who fall prey to these kinds of sins do not usually do so because they are suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge. Rather, relationships develop gradually, until suddenly a person finds himself in a situation that he never would have believed was possible.

This process does not happen all at once, or because the burden of piety and morality is suddenly impossible to bear. It is just that bearing this burden on a daily basis is incredibly taxing. No individual demand in the Torah creates the sense of facing an abyss. Each of these is a minor battle over minor things, but the battles add up, and may seem to some like a war with no end in sight.

Bringing a korban every once in a while is simple. But to fulfill all the various major and minor requirements listed in Parshat Kedoshim every day is quite another story. Not for naught does the Torah say, “Everyone shall revere his mother and his father.”16 Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.

This struggle is the fundamental struggle for holiness. Parshat Kedoshim presents a long list of minor requirements, none of which is extraordinary on its own, but each one recurs day after day. The very requirement to maintain this routine without succumbing to jadedness and despair – that itself creates the highest levels of holiness.

“With all your might”

We recite every day: “You shall love G‑d your Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”17 Our sages interpret as follows: “‘With all your heart’ means with both your inclinations, with the good inclination and with the evil inclination; ‘with all your soul’ means even if He takes your life; and ‘with all your might’ means with all your money.”18 But the order in this series of required sacrifices to G‑d is strange: If one is ready to give to G‑d with both of his inclinations, and he is even prepared to give up his life in service of G‑d, it seems anticlimactic to end the series with the injunction to give up one’s money in service of G‑d as well.

The meaning of “with all your money” is not simply that the person is told to hand over his money. Rather, every person faces a life of wearying, unending toil. “With all your money” is not about the act of giving but about committing oneself to a type of life where he is aware of the sacrifices expected of him from the outset. One must face these sacrifices not once in his lifetime but every day – often three or ten times a day. In light of the erosion that we have discussed, it stands to reason that “with all your money” is actually the most difficult demand of the three. First comes “with all your heart,” then “with all your soul,” and if someone is truly courageous and holy, he can also serve G‑d “with all your might.” A lion or a bear can be struck down, but a million termites is a different kind of challenge altogether.

The secret to achieving this courage is “Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.”19 We agree to take upon ourselves the million termites of life, which appear every day and at every hour, from the time we rise in the morning until we go to sleep at night. The solution is to emulate G‑d; when we bring G‑d into the picture, we begin to understand the meaning of the verse, “I am G‑d – I have not changed.”20 G‑d does not change; He remains holy no matter what the circumstances. “Who dwells with them in the midst of their impurity”21 – G‑d has the ability to maintain life in the midst of impurity. Parshat Kedoshim states that we, too, can walk in His ways. Then and only then will we succeed in being holy like Him.