You Shall Be Holy

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – April 28, 2011

The Torah portion of Kedoshim begins, “G-d spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire assembly of the children of Israel and say to them: you shall be holy, for holy am I, the  L-rd your G-d” (Vayikra 19: 1-2).  G-d exhorts us to be holy.  Being holy, however, is not quite clear.  To offer guidance in this matter, we can turn to a thought expressed by R. Moshe ben Nachman, the renowned 13th century Torah scion known as Ramban or Nachmanides.

In his exposition on the verse in Bereshit 12:6 in the Torah, Nachmanides explains, based on our Sages’ comment in Tanchuma 9, that what transpires with regard to our forefathers is meant to be a guide to us — their offspring.  Consequently, the Torah describes our forefathers’ happenings, comings and goings, actions and decisions at great length; and it is incumbent upon us to scrutinize the actions and anecdotes of our forefathers in order to learn from them.

In relation to our forefathers, the famous Torah giant R. Moshe Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer (1762 – 1806), notes a passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 17a that informs us that four people lived their whole lives without performing any wrongful deed that would entail punishment of any sort, and the only reason that these individuals ever died was because G–d so decreed it on humanity in general when Adam and Eve sinned.  These individuals are Benjamin the son of Jacob, Amram the father of Moses, Yishai the father of David and Kilav the son of David.  Why, the Chatam Sofer asks, is barely anything mentioned in our holy works concerning these flawless individuals while so much is mentioned about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David?  Why are these individuals, who never even once sinned, not treated as our forefathers from whose actions we should learn?

The Chatam Sofer points out that none of the aforementioned individuals had any real confrontation with humanity at large nor did they do anything to reach out to humanity.  While their remaining sinless and most pious is commendable and laudable, it does not serve as a paradigm of behavior for us.  Their behavior is not one to rank them amongst our forefathers.  To keep to oneself, do all that is readily palpable and obvious and remain pious is a lot simpler than making the extra effort and exhibiting the sensitivity to reach out to one’s fellow, which bring with it constant challenges and hurdles that need to be overcome.  It is consequently our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as Joseph, Moses and David, who, in the process of “going the extra mile” and reaching out to their fellow, slipped up ever so slightly during their rich lives, whom much is written about.  It is these who, by combining immense piety with piercing sensitivity and enormous efforts towards their fellow, should be our models of behavior.  By making an extra effort and striving towards a greater measure of caring, we may be prone to more mistakes, but only by doing so can we approach the greatness that our forefathers exemplified and which G–d wants us to aspire to.

For an example of the added effort and sensitivity that we are expected to exhibit over and above manifestations of piety, we need look no further than the first of our forefathers, Abraham.  Abraham pitches his tent, not in the center of civilization but at the crossroads where travelers pass through in order that he may be a source of refreshment to some stranger who would benefit from it.  Moreover, we are informed in the Torah (Bereshit, chapter 18), while Abraham is undergoing tremendous discomfort, certainly enough to warrant taking some time off from his normal activities, Abraham does not rest and does not cease to look out for a traveler that he may give some comfort to.  And when he sees three such travelers, he races about to prepare for them a 5–star meal consisting of the freshest meats and delectables.  Would these wayfarers die if Abraham did not offer them a meal during their journey?  Unlikely.  The average wayfarer expected to be on the road for a long time and would prepare himself with water and other means of nourishment to help him reach his destination.  Even if a traveler were to be chanced upon who was not faring well, certainly it would be enough to give him some bread that commentators say Abraham always kept around or some fruits or vegetables to help the traveler regain his strength.  What need is there for a full course meal.  And in his condition, why race around to prepare for his visitors?  Certainly if he asked Sarah, she would have gotten together the meal.  Abraham is overcome with the concept of helping the traveler, the wayfarer, the one who is away from home, to feel at home.  Abraham did not suffice with normal manifestations of piety.  If he had any fear whatsoever of the welfare of the traveler, Abraham could just as well have offered him water and bread and we would certainly recognize the piety of the deed.  Abraham was preoccupied with a deeper and more sensitive appreciation of the traveler’s welfare — his very discomfort in being a traveler away from home, unable to enjoy the comforts of home, and feeling alone, a discomfort that one at home does not readily recognize.  Abraham did not suffice with manifestations of piety.  Abraham extended himself and reached out to this traveler, sympathized with his discomfort and yearned and strived to fill the void in his life.  Abraham identified with his fellow man.  Abraham’s love for hachnasat orchim” (hospitality) is treated with such reverence that our Sages derive that it even supercedes greeting the Divine Presence (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a).

After Abraham, our other forefathers, leaders and Sages followed in his footsteps.  They extended themselves and reached out beyond their immediate perimeter.  To understand how to be holy, we can study the actions reported in anecdotes throughout the Holy Scriptures and Talmud of various forms of exemplary behavior exhibited by our progenitors since the days of Abraham.  These anecdotes of others’ holy behavior, Nachmanides notes, should guide us to holiness.  These anecdotes should to be studied and scrutinized to understand how we should act.  These anecdotes can be used as a guide to us in heeding G-d’s command of “You shall be holy” and, in so doing, along with the careful study of the Holy Scriptures and Talmud in general, we can hope to approach the holiness of our progenitors and come close to G-d Himself – our Creator, our Master, our Father in heaven.