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G-d said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and tell them, You shall be holy. For I, the Lord your G-d, am holy'" (19:1-2).
The actual meaning of, "You shall be holy", is disputed between the commentators. The Midrash (Lev. Rabbah 24:6), followed by Rashi, states that this commands the avoiding of the illicit physical relationships described in the previous chapter. Holiness is a product of refraining from sexual immorality. In contrast, the Ramban does not limit the concept of holiness to any category of precepts. Rather, holiness is something that should be characteristic of all aspects of life. A person who only observes the letter of the law may become a 'naval birshut ha-Torah' - a degenerate, debased person without actually breaking the Torah. Examples of characteristic behavior would include gross overeating of roast duck with the best, most 'glatt' hechsher, and a stamp collector offering a higher price for a very rare stamp when the other already agreed to sell it to someone else who had set his heart on it.
It could be suggested that the simple meaning of "You shall be holy" is one of self-identity. Those who wish to identify with a particular social or cultural group (for example, an exclusive college fraternity) must go to sometimes extreme lengths to be accepted into the group. It can involve a challenging series of initiation rituals, and keeping within the boundaries of the club ideals. Otherwise they don't belong.
In one experiment, two groups of people were told that they were going to attend a discussion on a controversial topic at an exclusive club. The first group were people who had just been accepted, but had gone through demanding preparation and initiating stages to achieve their dreams of getting in. The second group were people who were not members of the club, but had been recruited specially for the experiment.
Unknown to both groups, the discussion was set up to be excessively abstract and utterly boring. Afterwards, the group that was not connected with the club agreed that it was a worthless experience and a complete waste of time. The newly initiated members, on the other hand, reported on it as being an interesting and valuable encounter.
The Torah is a gift from the Creator. It contains the details of what is best for humanity from the Creator Himself, but the perception of the human being is limited. Much of what is in the Torah does not naturally appeal to common sense, life's experience, or simple reason. Examples include the details of Shabbat observance, kashrut, and the laws of purification.
This is what G-d told Moses to convey to the Israelites: "Be holy, for I - G-d - am holy".
"Being holy" means following the demanding requirements of the Torah traditions. "I am Holy" is the identity of the "Group Creator". "Be holy for I am Holy" is an invitation to develop yourself to fit in and be part of the "ultimate club" of "He that spoke and the world came into being".
However, human faculties have their limitations in perception and understanding. Being holy means learning and understanding Torah and observing the mitzvot. "I am holy" is G-d's communicating the mitzvot as part of His identity. Thus becoming a member of G-d's "exclusive club" requires observance, even when lacking full understanding.
Thus, for example, those informed and committed to the Torah concept of 'You shall be holy" find the Shabbat a spiritually uplifting experience. Even if they don't understand and personally relate to all the halachic and esoteric subtleties. Those who have not made the effort to identify as informed and committed people could find that they get little out of the Shabbat other than regrets as to how they spent their free time.
In short: "Be Holy" is G-d' invitation and means to fulfill the terms to join His Club - which He defines by "I am Holy".
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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