This week’s Parashah opens with one of the most iconic “Mitzvot” that appears in the Torah after Har Sinai: the commandment of “Kedoshim Tihyu,” “You shall be holy” (VaYikra 19:2). Although some attribute the source of its iconic value to its unparalleled ambiguity with respect to its demand for loftiness, one could perhaps attribute it to something else as well. The most explicit command for holiness placed in seemingly the worst possible location. Right before it, in Perek 18, the Torah sets forth a comprehensive list of the Arayot, the forbidden romantic relationships among family members. After Kedoshim Tihyu, the Torah proceeds to list even more prohibitions regarding subjects matters that are both Bein Adam LeMakom and Bein Adam LaChaveiro. What could the Torah have possibly wanted to accomplish by mentioning “Kedoshim Tihyu” here?
The first word in the phrase is “Kedoshim,” “holy.” Why place this Mitzvah to be holy right after the rather lengthy list of some of the most objectionable and lowly activities a person could possibly do? Why not place it after a spiritual height, in order to sustain the Kedushah that has already been reached? Instead, the Mitzvah is adjacent to the mentioning of actions that will lead one away from Kedushah.
The second word in the phrase is “Tihyu,” “You (in the plural form) will be,” implying that everyone together has to try to achieve holiness. Why juxtapose this unifying commandment with the Arayot, activities that have the ability to divide and separate the family? Also, why is this phrase juxtaposed with all of the prohibitions mentioned afterwards, prohibitions whose violation would cause a rift between a person and Hashem or a person and his or her friend/s? If the Torah wished to perpetuate the message of holiness in numbers, why not mention this Mitzvah at Har Sinai, a time when Bnei Yisrael were at an unprecedented and unparalleled level of unity? Why couldn’t the message be to stay on the high level that we were on? Finally, what message is the Torah conveying by placing this commandment at the beginning of this week’s Parashah?
Before we explain the concept of Kedushah, we have to understand how one ascends to Kedushah. There are two well-known ways which something or someone can become pure and Kadosh: through Tevilah, immersing oneself [in a Mikveh], and through Hekdeish, the dedication of an object or an animal for by the Beit HaMikdash. With Tevilah, all one has to do is completely immerse oneself or the object into Mikveh water. The entire process can take less than a minute. With Hekdeish, all one has to do is think, “I hereby dedicate... for use as a Korban or in the Beit HaMikdash.” When people go through this process, they are completely transforming their status or the status of the object to a new and elevated state. Why does this process take no less than a split-second to complete?
Purifying oneself and making oneself Kadosh is different from many other areas of Halachah in that regarding Kedushah, it is truly the thought that counts. If one wants to dedicate something to the Beit HaMikdash, he only has to think that. If one wants to purify oneself in the Mikveh, it is so easy that all the person requires is the will to do it. There is an action involved with purification, but the action plays a secondary role to the will of the person.
If one wants to have a relationship with Hashem, that is enough. It does not matter if the person is on a spiritual high or low: Hashem is there for all who seek Him. Once a person establishes a relationship with Hashem, he can then begin to form relationships with the people around him. No matter what, a person can always achieve Kedushah and unity with both Hashem and his peers.
Why does Kedushah have so many rules? The second Rebbe of Ger opens his commentary (the Sefat Emet) on Parashat Kedoshim by quoting the Zohar that states that “Kedoshim Tihyu” is a promise to Klal Yisrael that its members will be holy, for Hashem is the “Mekadishchem,” the One who sanctifies us. If one wants to be holy, Hashem will purify him. “Kedoshim Tihyu” is not a commandment, but a consequence. The Torah is stating that should you choose to be holy, it can happen—all that is necessary is your will. Based on the idea of the Zohar, the prohibitions surrounding the Pasuk of Kedoshim Tihyu should not be read as a series of rigid rules and regulations, but rather as a series of effects and consequences. For example, 13 Pesukim after the commandment of ‘Kedoshim Tihyu,’ the Torah describes the prohibition of placing a “stumbling block” in front of a blind person. The language of the Torah is “Lo Titein,” which can be read either as, “Do not place [a stumbling block],” or as, “You will not place [a stumbling block].”The second reading is a praise for someone who chooses to live a life of morals and purity. The rules is Parashat Kedoshim are not meant to burden a person with laws, but rather to give people joy and satisfaction when they realize how much they accomplished and how much more they are capable of accomplishing.
During Mussaf on Yom Kippur, we recount the time when the Kohein Gadol would walk out of the Kodesh HaKodashim saying the all-powerful four-letter name of Hashem (and survive), which compell the other Kohanim and the entirety of Bnei Yisrael to bow and fall on their faces and say, “Baruch Sheim Kevod Malchuto LeOlam VaEd.” One may ask, “Wasn’t Hashem everywhere during the time of the Beit HaMikdash?” There were double the number of Nevi’im than there were people that went out of Mitzrayim (Megillah 14a)! What was so special in this case that motivated everyone to bow and recite this Pasuk? What was the novelty? The people saw what happened to the person who chose to reach out to Hashem in the most intimate of locations and in the most intimate of ways. When he went out to the people, they saw what he was capable of, and they wanted it. It was on Yom Kippur that the people realized that yes, Kedushah is always present—if one has the desire, he will discover the way towards it.