If an Oscar Award would one day be given for an on-the-mark title given to a parasha in the Torah, we may assume that the name of our parasha, “Kedoshim,” would be a serious contender for this award. A study of the many commands that appear in our parasha reveals that the demand for a higher ethical and humanitarian standard runs like a thread throughout this entire portion.
On the other hand, one of the fundamental principles of the entire system of laws is clarity; a law must be formulated in such a way that allows for its implementation and an understanding of what it demands and expects. In this respect, the parasha’s opening imperative – “Kedoshim tihyu” (“You shall be holy”) – could hardly contend for the clarity award. Rashi, in his commentary to this pasuk, addresses this difficulty, and establishes that the obligation of “holiness” is one and the same with the command to abstain from “arayot” – sexual offences. He writes, “For wherever you find a fence around forbidden relations, you find holiness.” Therefore, the essential meaning behind this command is our distance from “arayot.”
The Ramban, by contrast, expands the scope of this mitzva and explains that “kedoshim tihyu” instructs that one must not be content with the formal fulfillment of the mitzvot. Rather, we are enjoined to sanctify all of life in accordance with the Torah. The mere, external observance of the laws, without an internal sense of identification and without internalizing the values that the Torah seeks to convey to us, empties mitzva fulfillment of its substantive content, and is prone to lead us to the point described by the Ramban as “naval bi’rshut ha’Torah” – where a person commits an unethical act while meeting all the legal restrictions and demands. A familiar, prime example of this phenomenon is recorded in the Gemara, with regard to the pasuk in Megilat Ester, “And the rule for the drinking was, ‘No restrictions!'” The Gemara comments that at Achashverosh’s feast, kosher wine was served so that the Jews could also participate in the celebration. Despite the halachic concern on the part of the Jews to drink only kosher wine, the Gemara establishes that this generation was deserving of annihilation at the hands of Haman because they took part in Achashverosh’s feast – the feast in which he celebrated the fact that Am Yisrael had not returned to its land.
Proper observance of the mitzvot requires an ambition to become holy through the Torah, rather than simply abiding by the external framework of the mitzvot. The command, “kedoshim tihyu” demands striving for personal and social perfection. The endless challenge that this mitzva poses to us is expressed in the fact that even one who fulfills a given mitzva – such as assisting another or studying Torah – in perfect fashion, has not completely satisfied his obligation with regard to that mitzva. The sense of personal satisfaction for having fulfilled one’s duty itself contradicts the essence of the mitzva. This idea brings to mind the comment of the Rebbe of Kotzk – “there is no perfection like a broken heart.” The way to reach perfection is through the recognition that true perfection does not exist, and yet this awareness must never diminish from one’s ambition to strive towards it. We are rather to continue progressing onward, on both the personal and communal levels, towards kedusha and perfection.
It emerges, then, that the obligation, “kedoshim tihyu” embodies not only this entire parasha, which deals with general, ethical commands such as “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” which Rabbi Akiva famously deemed “the great principle of the Torah,” and next to which the Torah presents other commands concerning a proper judicial system – but it rather embodies all of Torah, in its entirety.
For good reason, the expression, “Ani Hashem” (“I am God”) appears in the first chapter of our parasha no fewer than sixteen times – to teach us that the sanctity of man and the obligation to become holy stem from a person’s obligation to resemble Hashem. The general command to the human being stems from the power of the overarching imperative – “You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy.”