The True Nature of Holiness- Thoughts on Parshat Kedoshim

The first verse of this week’s Torah portion states, “Speak to the entire congregation and tell them: You should be holy because I, Hashem your God, am holy.” (Vayikra 19:2) Rashi, the classical biblical commentator, explains that Moses was commanded to speak to the entire congregation because the message he was about to impart was one of utmost and national importance. He writes, “This passage was stated in the assembly … because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah are dependent on it [i.e., they are encapsulated in this passage].” Torath Kohanim 19:1; Vayikra Rabbah 24:5 (ad loc.). Here in the subsequent verses, Moses relayed to the people the recipe for true holiness and core, fundamental teachings of the Torah. What topics do the subsequent verses cover? Interestingly, what follow are an absolute fusion of mitzvot between man and God and between man and his fellow. Observing Shabbat, loving thy neighbor, the prohibition against serving idols, the prohibition against taking revenge, the laws of sacrifices, etc. What can be learned from the interspersed juxtaposition of verses discussing both mitzvot between man and God/man and his fellow, and what is the underlying fundamental message that necessitated these passages be elaborated on in front of the entire community?

Holiness and service of God is often mistakenly understood by many to require a certain disconnect from the world in which we live, in order so that a person can devote all of their strength and abilities to the Divine. Faiths around the globe have their holy people who practice various forms of separation from the world at large, be it through vows of silence, celibacy, or cloistering themselves away from the general population. Judaism also places great emphasis on the obligation and importance of serving God, as the verse writes, “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul; to keep the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.” (Devarim 10:12) King Solomon concisely wrote, “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God and observe all His commandments, for this is the whole of man.” (Kohelet 12:13) However, Judaism was never of the opinion that this service of God has to come about through a complete separation from this world and the people in it, in fact, the opposite is true. Rather, or perhaps more specifically, it is within the confines of the earthly world and community of peoples that lies the opportunity to make the greatest strides toward the Divine.

On this topic, in his work “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik introduces two types of religious personalities: the “homo-religious” and “Halachik Man”. Homo-religious is he who wishes to serve God by separating himself from this world, whereas Halakhic Man is he who wishes to dwell with God in this world.The words of the Rav shed much needed light on the appropriate outlook and balance one should strive to reach, in order to live a life of holiness in a world of earthly nature.“Homo religious starts out in this world and ends up in supernal realms…dissatisfied, disappointed, and unhappy, [he] craves to rise up from the vale of tears, from concrete reality, and aspires to climb the mountain of the Lord. He attempts to extricate himself from the narrow straits of empirical existence and emerge into the wide spaces of pure and pristine transcendental existence… [However] his glance fixed upon the higher realms, forgets all too frequently the lower realms and becomes ensnared in the sins of ethical inconsistency and hypocrisy.” (Halakhic Man, pg.40-41). To his detriment, the homo-religious, in his flight from this world in the search for God, can very easily fall prey to disregarding the people and the world in which he lives.

In contrast, Rav Soloveitchik explains that the other religious personality– Halakhic Man — takes the complete opposite approach. Rather than fleeing into transcendence in search of God, Halakhic Man brings God into the reality of this world. He writes, “When his soul yearns for God, he immerses himself in reality, plunges, with his entire being, into the very midst of concrete existence, and petitions God to descend … and to dwell within our reality, with all its laws and principles. Homo religious ascends to God; God, however, descends to halakhic man. The latter desires not to transform finitude into infinity but rather infinity into finitude.” (Halakhic Man, pg. 45) Elsewhere, the Rav writes, “Judaism states that God joins with the individual only in the merit of the community which is loyal to Him and seeks Him. If man separates himself from the community, he is not worthy of cleaving to God. The prayers exalting God’s holiness may not be uttered unless ten men are present- “And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel” Vayikra 22:32…” (“U-vikkashtem Mi-sham,” pg. 89) According to Rav Soloveitchik, the goal of Halakhic Man is to bring God into our daily earthly experiences and communities, to live a life that recognizes and affirms that holiness and Divine service begins and continues with man’s feet firmly planted in the ground and reality.

Though not coined as such, this idea of homo-religious vs. Halakhic Man is a concept that has been argued for generations. In ancient times, the Prophet Yeshayahu offered a scathing message from God chastising those who only follow the path of the homo-religious and focus solely on their responsibilities towards God while ignoring their fellow man and the concrete existence in which they live. The Prophet writes, “What need have I of all your sacrifices? Says the Lord. … I have no delight in lambs and he-goats…Cease bringing futile oblations; your incense is offensive to Me.….Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they have become a burden to Me… when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen, for your hands are stained with blood…Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow!” (Yeshayahu 1:11-17) Meticulous ritual observance, though extremely significant in Jewish life, is for naught if at the same time man averts his eyes from the distress of his fellow. Part and parcel of true service of God –and true holiness itself — must include caring about the welfare of the people around you.

This message of Halakhic Man, of the need to bring God down into this world and the desire to transform “infinity into finitude“, explains the connection between the puzzling, interspersed juxtaposition of the mitzvot mentioned in this week’s Torah portion and why taken together they are the prerequisite for achieving true holiness. From here we learn that Man’s desire for holiness and Divine service cannot come at the negation of this world and the people who inhabit it; only through Man’s involvement in it will he achieve the ideal balance. The mitzvah of not worshipping idols, “You shall not turn to the worthless idols, nor shall you make molten deities for yourselves. I am the Lord, your God…” (Vayikra 19:4) is no less important than “You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning.”(ibid 19:13) This integral message was delivered before the entire assembly so that together as a unified nation they would recognize that it is only by focusing on God through the lens of the here and now—from within the community and concrete reality of this world— that Man will be on the true path to holiness.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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