Holiness is a word expressing a worthy ideal, if not the worthiest of all. But upon encountering this idea in the opening verses of this portion, we must admit that the concept seems rather vague and difficult to define.
Examining some of the commentators on this issue of holiness, the remarks of Rashi and Nahmanides are thought-provoking, not only because of their differences, but also because of their similarities.
Rashi explains the phrase “you shall be holy…” as follows:
You shall separate yourselves. Abstain from forbidden sexual relationships and from sin, because wherever you find a warning to guard against sexual immorality, you find the mention of holiness. (Rashi on Leviticus 19:2)
Since the sexual drive is probably the strongest of our physiological needs and urges, it makes sense that Rashi will use this activity as a paradigm for all others.
Nahmanides, after initially quoting Rashi’s understanding of holiness, goes a step further by pointing out that the rabbinic interpretation of the phrase doesn’t limit the holiness of self-restraint exclusively to sexual behavior, but rather applies it to all elements of human nature.
Nahmanides goes on to explain that a Jew may punctiliously observe all the details of the laws and still act “repulsively, within the parameters of the Torah” (naval b’reshut ha’Torah). In effect, argues Nahmanides, the commandments must be seen as the floor of the building and not as the ceiling.
Nahmanides finds the parallel for the meta-halakhic “you shall be holy” in the human-divine relationship, within the equally meta-halakhic “you shall do what is right and good” (Deut. 6:18) in all of our interpersonal human relationships. That doing what is right and good must be the overall rubric under which we are to conduct our affairs.
It turns out that Rashi’s focus of the “you shall be holy” concept concerns matters of sexuality, while Nahmanides focuses on the entire range of our experience. Apparently, the placement of the commandment “you shall be holy” which opens chapter nineteen, sends Rashi and Nahmanides in two different directions. Rashi finds that immediately preceding the mandate to be holy is the Torah presents all the laws of improper sexual behavior and is inspired to conclude that holiness must refer first and foremost to the sexual realm.
Nahmanides, however, gazes ahead and sees, following the directive “to be holy,” no less than 51 commandments in Kedoshim unfolding before him.
In a most basic way, the two approaches are similar. Both define holiness as the ability to say “no” to one’s most instinctive physical desires.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.