Be holy, the Bible[i] urges; but, how is that exalted status achieved in practice? The Bible itself does not expressly set out a program for accomplishing this noble goal.
According to a number of Biblical commentators, there is some guidance offered by the juxtaposition of this Biblical verse in a matrix of a number of fundamental commandments. Thus, Rashi[ii] notes it is preceded by the Bible’s extensive exposition on prohibited relationships[iii]. He views the Biblical requirement to be holy in this context and offers that it is fulfilled by being aloof from those prohibited relationships and avoiding sinful thoughts. This is accomplished by erecting safeguards against such misconduct[iv].
Immediately following the Biblical verse[v] are a string of three critical principles of proper conduct, dealing with reverence for parents, observing the Sabbath and not worshiping idols. The Bible[vi] then goes on to detail requirements for ethical behavior in social and business relationships. The implication is that there is a linkage, at some level, with some or all of these commandments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch[vii] embraces this approach and finds the juxtaposition is not accidental. His analysis of the nature of being holy is cogent. It is all about mastery of our powers and natural tendencies and sublimating them to the higher purpose of emulating G-d’s ways. He posits that these character traits, from the most spiritual to the most sensual, are not inherently bad or good. It is all about how they are applied in practice, both in terms of fostering positive goals and not violating limits designed to prevent negative outcomes. He agrees with Nachmanides’ view, summarized below, that holiness is achieved by acting judiciously and with restraint in the realm of what is otherwise permitted and not already expressly prohibited. However, he discusses the application of this fundamental principle of refined behavior primarily in the context of relationships with parents, the Sabbath, purity of belief in G-d and business and social affairs, which are the subject matter of the Biblical verses noted above.
Nachmanides[viii] expressly rejects Rashi’s approach and derives no particular lesson from the placement of the Biblical verse on holiness in this textual context. He explains the Biblical injunction to achieve the existential state of being holy is related to how we engage with what is permitted, generally; not what is prohibited. Thus, it’s not about avoiding consumption of non-kosher food or engaging in prohibited relationships, which are expressly forbidden. Rather, it relates to not being gluttonous when eating kosher foods, lecherous with a spouse[ix] or guzzling kosher wine. Similarly, even though the Bible[x] does not expressly prohibit using vulgar language, holiness requires avoiding such abusive speech.
Being holy is all about, in effect, separating[xi] from overindulgence in or abuse of those things that are otherwise permissible, by establishing boundaries that honor the spirit, not just the letter of the law. The essence of being holy is not so much about doing something in particular; rather, it is about what should not be done. It’s about exercising restraint[xii]. Nachmanides encapsulates this concept in a pithy phrase loosely translated, as a person should not be ‘a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah’[xiii].
Rabbeinu Bachya[xiv] fleshes out Nachmanides’ thesis on achieving holiness in practice, by relating it visually to four basic areas of human anatomy. Thus, he equates control of the mouth as the means of curtailing gluttonous consumption. It is the tongue that must be held in check to avoid uttering profanity or suggestive and other unseemly speech. Similarly, use of the private parts is to be limited, because overindulgence in intimate relations can profane even what would otherwise be a Mitzvah between husband and wife. Rabbeinu Bachya also discusses the brain and its functionality, which is not expressly covered by Nachmanides. He focuses on its imaginative facility that can occupy our consciousness with alluring fantasies, unscrupulous schemes and other inappropriate thoughts. Through its control of the body, it can also translate those lurid thoughts into action. It is thus a catchall for most any behavior that might be deemed abusive or inappropriate.
Rav Yonatan Eybeshitz[xv] expresses concern about the tendency to take this kind of a philosophical approach to an extreme and pursue a fully monastic existence. Our role in this world is neither to deny and wholly abstain from the physical nor to be devoted only to the spiritual and be removed entirely from society and worldly activity. A true and complete servant of G-d conducts his or her business and social affairs in a manner pleasing to G-d and other people and is an active and positive force in societal affairs. It is not proper to disdain others and worldly activities. After all, if everyone became a hermit monk then the world and natural order could not be sustained. He emphasizes the ethic of combining Torah and worldly activity[xvi] that is the hallmark of our traditional approach to life.
In this regard, reference might be made to Maimonides[xvii], who prescribes an appropriate regimen designed to preserve the spiritual and physical health of a person. It is based on his holistic approach that includes treating not only the mind and body but also the soul, because they are each vital components in a symbiotic relationship. His prescription includes vigorous exercise, other physical activity and eating healthy. He even suggests a regular visit to the spa, but not more frequently than once a week. He cautions against lethargy, overindulging in intimate relations and overeating. His approach may be summarized as the good life is about respecting boundaries and following the middle path. Eat healthy and don’t overeat to live well; living to eat is irresponsible.
In striking contrast to the art of becoming holy outlined above, Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, followed another path; a disastrous course of conduct that led to their untimely[xviii] and spectacular[xix] demise. The Midrash[xx] and Talmud[xxi] provide a number of explanations for why this occurred. These include an unsanctioned entry into the innermost holy precincts of the Tabernacle; bringing an unauthorized ritual offering; firing it from an outside source; not consulting with their father Aaron or uncle Moses, who were in charge, before engaging in this inappropriate conduct; not consulting with each other; drinking an alcoholic beverage on the job; not being properly attired; not washing their hands and feet, as required, in advance of performing a Temple ritual; not being married; not having children; eating and partying below Mount Sinai, even as they perceived the Divine Presence, while Moses was receiving the Torah from G-d; and wondering out loud when Aaron and Moses would pass away so that they could replace them and take over their leadership roles. They also compounded their errors by engaging in the unsanctioned Temple ritual solely for their own personal benefit and not in a representative capacity for the benefit of the entire community[xxii].
They looked for holiness in all the wrong places. Indeed, it might well be said that holiness can’t be found, because it has no precise location. It’s also not linked to a particular job or function. Being a Kohen, entering the holy precincts of the Temple to officiate and bring holy sacrifices, wearing the holy garments set aside for these purposes and ritually washing do not automatically transform the individual into a holy person. It must be earned as outlined above through self-discipline and restraint. The fact that they violated the rules in the process, to benefit only themselves personally, is a source of profanation rather than sanctification. It begs the question of what caused them to make such fatal errors in judgment?
The Midrash[xxiii] is extremely critical in its analysis of their character flaws. It discusses how they were arrogant, entitled, self-indulgent, haughty and selfish. It notes they didn’t marry because they didn’t view anyone as a worthy match. They didn’t respect their father Aaron or Moses and felt they were better than them. Hence, they didn’t feel the need to consult with them prior to taking their misguided and fateful action. Indeed, they didn’t even caucus first. Each acted impulsively, with reckless abandon and without prior consultation with the other. They also lacked any concern for established norms or boundaries. They may otherwise have had many redeeming qualities and been slated for a brilliant future[xxiv]. Nevertheless, their hubris and sanctimonious behavior was inexcusable and disqualifying.
As noted above, holiness is a state of being and achieving it is based on self-control and respecting boundaries. It is not tied to any location, promoted by unbridled enthusiasm or excess of any kind. Indeed, as noted above, it’s not about performing any ritual or doing anything in particular; it is more about not doing, including what is proscribed and exercising restraint even as to what is permitted. They profoundly misunderstood this fundamental Torah approach to life.
Sanctimony is an unrewarding affectation with no redeeming qualities. At its essence is the lack of restraint and misguided and unbridled enthusiasm that were among the root causes, which resulted in the fatal blunders of Nadav and Abihu.
The secret to real holiness is genuine self-control and restraint, including establishing appropriate boundaries and respecting them. It is much easier to talk about it and be sanctimonious than achieve holiness in practice. Regulating our patterns of behavior is an arduous process that takes time and unrelenting effort. However, it is well worth it, because through that process we become refined individuals and truly sanctified.
[i] Leviticus 19:2.
[ii] Rashi commentary on Leviticus 19:2.
[iii] Leviticus, Chapter 18.
[iv] See also Kil Yakar commentary on Leviticus 19:2 and Aruch HaShulchan, Even HaEzer 21:1.
[v] Leviticus 19:3-4.
[vi] Leviticus, Chapter 19.
[vii] Hirsch commentary on Leviticus 19:2.
[viii] Ramban commentary on Leviticus 19:2.
[ix] Illustrating this concept with the image of a rooster constantly hovering over the chickens, as noted in BT Brachot 22a.
[x] See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot, Chapter 5.
[xi] This is Nachmanides’ novel interpretation of the Hebrew term ‘Perush’ (separation), which is often equated with ‘Kodesh’ (holiness).
[xii] C.F. Maimonides (Sefer Hamitzvot, Shoresh 4), who defines being holy as performing all the Mitzvot.
[xiii] His expression in the original Hebrew is: “Naval B’Reshut HaTorah” .
[xiv] Leviticus, Kedoshim 19.1.
[xv] Tiferet Yonatan, Kedoshim, s.v. ‘VeHenei HaRamban”
[xvi] See Avot 2:2.
[xvii] Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot, Chapter 4.
[xviii] Leviticus 10:1-2.
[xix] See Sifra, Shemini, Mechilta D’Miluim 2:22-23.
[xx] Ibid, as well as, 2:21 and 32; and see also Leviticus Rabbah 20:6-11 and 12:1 and 5; Yalkut Shimoni on the Torah, 524:5-9; Numbers Rabbah 2:23-24; Sifra, Acharei Mot 1:1; Tanchuma Acharei Mot 6:1; and Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna 26:9.
[xxi] See BT Sanhedrin 52a, Eruvin 63a, Yoma 53a and Yevamot 64a.
[xxii] See Chizkuni commentary on Leviticus 10:1.
[xxiii] Leviticus Rabbah, Chapter 20.
[xxiv] See Numbers Rabbah 2:4 and Sifra, Shemini, Mechlita D’Miluim 2:32.