“Living a Truly Sanctified Life”
(updated and revised from Kedoshim 5765-2005)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The message of this week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim, is surely one of the Torah’s most exalted messages to humankind.

In the Torah portion (Leviticus 19:2), G-d speaks to Moses and tells him to speak to all the people of Israel and say to them: קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, You shall be holy, because I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy. In effect, the Torah proclaims that the Jewish people are not meant to be part of a “value-free” environment. To the contrary, Judaism has very definitive and absolute values. In fact, the Jewish people are mandated to imitate all of G-d’s positive and merciful traits so that they may reflect these values, to be קְדֹשִׁים–Kedoshim–holy.

It is not by accident that our rabbis translate Kedoshim as פְּרוּשִׁים–perushim–separate. It is nigh impossible to remain moral in an immoral society. One cannot be a צַדִיק—tzaddik, a truly righteous person, in Sodom, because the Sodomite environment inevitably impacts on its inhabitants no matter how hard one tries to resist the blandishments and temptations. The Torah, therefore, recommends–separate yourself, work on yourself, become a “master” in goodness and morality, so that your good qualities will impact on others. You will then be in a position to resist the evil temptations that would otherwise seduce you.

A close inspection of parashat Kedoshim shows that “sanctity” is meant to cover all aspects of life, during one’s entire lifetime, from childhood to old age. Sanctity is to be reflected in one’s relationships not only with G-d, but especially with other human beings. Not only are a person’s external appearances to be a reflection of sanctity, but even one’s internal thoughts. The sanctified behavior of the Jew is to be displayed at all times, in the synagogue and in the workplace, in the yeshiva and on the threshing floor, in the court of law and in the bathhouse. While our Torah places great emphasis on מִשְׁפָּטִים–mishpatim–laws, rules and rituals, it places even greater emphasis on achieving holiness.

When a Jew fails to live up to his/her divine potential and commits an act in which G-d’s name is desecrated, it is known in rabbinic literature as a חִלּוּל הַשֵּׁם–chillul Hashem. This expression reflects that not only has a desecration of G-d’s name been committed, but that G-d has, in effect, had His essence diminished. On the other hand, when one performs an act of sanctity and honor, it is considered a קִדוּשׁ הַשֵּׁם–kiddush Hashem, a sanctification G-d’s name, elevating and enhancing G-d’s name, bringing pride and glory to the Divine name.

Much of this seems to be an impossible goal to achieve, certainly too much for mere mortals. And yet, the Torah insists that it is not so. In the beginning of our parasha (Leviticus 19:2), G-d speaks to Moses and says, דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, speak to all of the children of Israel. The emphasis on the word all, which rarely appears in this biblical context, conveys a profound message. Rabbi Moshe Alshich says that this teaches that although not all people are capable of reaching the towering heights of righteousness, it is important that people not feel intimidated, and always strive to reach these lofty goals. The Torah teaches that virtually everyone is capable of reaching these great heights, since it is not a matter of understanding, but rather a matter of doing and observing.

This revolutionary message of morality and sanctification is unique to Judaism. It is a concept that the Torah introduced to humankind, and that we Jews are bidden to convey to all humanity, not by preaching, but through modeling. We need to remind ourselves that those originally given the honorific title “Kedoshim,” were not the deceased, who had given up their lives for the sanctity of G-d’s name, but rather, the living, who had lived sanctified lives.

If we were to distill all of Judaism into a single message, perhaps the most important message would be, קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, be holy, be sanctified! Pass it on.

May you be blessed.