What Does it Mean to be a Holy Person?

You shall not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19, 14).

Parshat Kedoshim opens with a simple statement: Be holy.  Why? Because I the Lord your God, am holy. It’s a statement that echoes all the way back in the Book of Shemot, just before Am Yisrael received the Torah: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

But what does it mean to be holy? Seemingly the text doesn’t explain it, and moves on to recount no less than 51 different mitzvot ranging from leaving the corners of one’s field for the poor to the prohibition of cross-breeding animals to the obligation to love a fellow Jew. And then at the end of the parsha, the text again reiterates the requirement to be holy.

But what does it mean to be holy? The text seemingly leaves this out. But if we read the two commandments at the beginning and the end of the parsha as brackets, so to speak, then all the mitzvot contained between these two statements can be seen as the means for achieving holiness. 

In other words, the seemingly random list of mitzvot which appears in the parsha is a specific expression of the general requirement of being holy. A truly holy person and a holy nation act according to the divergent set of principles listed here.

To clarify,  we are not talking about an ethical nation or person, though we are not excluding ethics. But “ethics” is a Greek word whose root implies proper character. Though one’s character is of great importance, kedusha, or holiness, implies something different. 

As we take a wide-angle look over our parsha, whatever kedusha is, it is something that envelopes the entirety of life, the life of the individual and the life of the nation. It touches all facets of our relationships: my relationship with God, my relationship with others, and my relationship with myself. It reaches not only up to the heavens, but it also reaches down to the most vulnerable members of society. 

Indeed we are taught: “You shall not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19, 14).

Here the Torah is not speaking literally; the prohibition is not limited to the examples given. It is a general prohibition against doing harm to those who either have no recourse, or may not even know that they are being harmed. The person committing these crimes against the unwitting victim may think that he is getting away with it; but the end of the passage testifies that his actions do indeed have consequences. “You should fear your God, I am the Lord.”

Here is a powerful example of what we call hashgacha, or Divine Providence, in the Torah. God is involved in our lives, and cares about our actions. And so being a holy person means that one lives with the consciousness that God is always present in his life and acts accordingly. God is not only watching after him, but also watching him, making sure he doesn’t take advantage of others. 

So as opposed to the ethical person, who may uphold all the laws of the land, what does it mean to be kadosh, to be holy according to the Torah? Being kadosh means that I am aware that I am standing in the presence of the Divine. It means that I know in my heart that God cares about all my actions, whether small or large. It also means that I understand that God cares about those who are most vulnerable. And of course that means that I should care about them too. Because just as God is kadosh, so too should we be. 

After hearing this,  it should be no surprise to us that that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the codifier of the Mishna, known simply as Rebbi HaKadosh, teaches us in Pirke Avot: keep in mind three things and you will not come to sin: Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.

In other words, being kadosh requires more than ethical behavior. It requires a holistic awareness of God’s concern and care for the entire world; and equally important, it means knowing that all our actions have consequences, even those which seem small or insignificant.

Dedicated to Soroh Perel bas Zorach and Refoayl Nissin ben Zorach

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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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