Kedoshim Tiheyu

In general the LAWS OF THE TORAH are given with all the details of the halachic system, but occasionally the Torah presents us with an insight into the goal or general purpose to which the entire halachic code is aimed.
Do we have a ‘big picture’ answer to the question of what is the overall purpose intended in the observance of the entire code of halachic practice?

Whenever we find this question referred to in the Torah we come across the word ‘kedusha’ in some form. It’s one of those Hebrew words which defy exact translation, meaning approximately sanctity or holiness, but these terms themselves have totally distinct meanings in different religious and spiritual systems. What one religion may consider ‘holy’ another may consider bizarre! Since this ‘kedusha’ concept is so central to the ultimate goal of the Torah, we need to be careful not to import into it nuances of meaning which are foreign to Judaism.

In the opening pasuk of Parshat Kedoshim, Vayikra 19.2, we find one especially powerful example of this statement. The two words ‘Kedoshim Tiheyu’ are an imperative requiring the Jewish People not merely to DO something special, but to BE someone special. This shift from doing to being is crucial to understanding this central importance of this pasuk.

An interesting example of this meaning is found in the Seforno commentary here. He writes that this pasuk is understood as follows: after having seen the previous several chapters of Vayikra, with all the multiple restrictions of Kashrut, Tumah impurities, forbidden sexual relationships and warnings against paganism and superstitions, -one wants to know what are all these restrictions and prohibitions aimed at? what ultimate purpose do they serve? Is it some incomprehensible Divine Purpose which we follow blindly in order to serve God, or is there something we can formulate in our own minds as the sumum bonum of the Torah laws? The answer, says Seforno, is ‘Kedoshim Tiheyu’ that the net result of all these restrictions is to BECOME A DIFFERENT SORT OF PERSON, someone who has internalised this intrinsic quality of ‘kedusha’. The Torah has shifted from doing to being.

This is in fact part of a much broader topic in Jewish Philosophy, whether we relate to Mitzvot as ‘an end in themselves’ intrinsically valuable and essentially incomprehensible to us, as they originate from the World of the infinite Ein Sof? or can we speak of Mitzvot as ‘a means to an end’ where the goal of our Mitzvot is something we can grasp with human intelligence. Without wishing to oversimplify the intricate discussions of this question by the Rambam, Ramban, Ramchal, Maharal, and others, – there is a broad agreement that in every mitzva there are some elements which we can indeed grasp and formulate in human terms as the purpose, but it is quite literally the tip of the iceberg, where most of the meaning is beyond our comprehension and lies in the realm of the infinite inscrutable Ratzon Hashem, the Ein Sof, the Will of God. (an interesting graphic representation of this idea is on Seder Night, when we break the matza in half, and we only tell the story of the Haggadah over the smaller half, while the larger part is ‘tzafoon’ hidden away beyond our grasp of the story and it’s explanations.)

Returning to Kedoshim Tiheyu we have a particular type of Kedusha formulated in the writings of the Ramban, Nachmanides. He writes here a profound insight into the Halachic system as a whole. So much of our lives are restricted or prohibited, particularly in the realm of both food and sexual relationships, and yet, he writes, there appears to be nothing preventing a person from living the life of materialistic hedonism, totally self-indulged in kosher food and permitted sexual life, both in great excess. (In particular within the Biblical Law which permitted polygamy, a person could have a number of totally permitted wives allowing him to be sexually active constantly.) The Ramban, with his grasp of the totality of the Torah’s message, finds this impossible; he states with certainty that there must be a specific Torah requirement to refrain from a life of material excesses, of hedonism and self gratification.

To address this lacuna in the Halachic system the Torah gives us this instruction ‘Kedoshim Tiheyu’, to live a life of materialist moderation within that which is halachically permitted. To use a phrase from the writings of Rav Moshe Feinstein z’tzal, this is the Torah principle that ‘not everything that is halachically permitted is it correct to do’.

However this leaves open a hard question, by what criteria will a person decide to refrain from materialistic excesses, once they are halachically permitted? The answer for the Ramban appears to be that a person has some form of moral intuition which can differentiate between moderate and excessive physical needs. It cannot be quantified in the Halacha that, for instance, one piece of meat is permitted but two is excessive, since this is culture bound and personal, and is not subject to a system of rules. The human soul, the Neshama, has a sense of Kedusha which is violated by excessive physical self indulgence, and it is here that the Torah gives us a type of supra-Halachic principle to use one’s inner intuitive sense of ruchniyut spiritual life.

If we are looking for a formulation of the ultimate goal of all the Laws of the Torah, this idea of the Ramban is certainly at least part of the answer; to live within the parameters described by the Halachic system, and beyond that to activate the Neshama to sense intuitively what aspects of life promote Kedusha and what are the excesses of life which undermine our spiritual life. This is the way in which Kedoshim Tiheyu invites us not only to DO something important, but to BECOME someone who is able to listen to the inner voice of the Neshama.

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About the Author,

Rabbi Kimche is the Rav of the Ner Yisrael community in Hendon.