Israel’s Holiness and Its Consequences
On the verse, “You shall be holy, for I the L-RD your G-d am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), Rashi writes in the name of the Sages: “My holiness is superior to yours” (Vayikra Rabba 24:9), which means: “You are not as holy as I.” The same source also states that this passage was said before the entire community, since most of the fundamental principles of the Torah depend on it (ibid. 24:5). This needs to be explained from several viewpoints.
1. How can a person, who is mortal and replete with sin, possible think that he is as holy as G-d, to the extent that G-d has to say, “My holiness is superior to yours”? Can a person’s mind possibly think otherwise for even a single instant?
2. Rashi also gives the following explanation: “ ‘You shall be holy’ – Separate yourself from forbidden sexual relations and from sin” (Vayikra Rabba 24:4,6). Now if most of the fundamental principles of the Torah depend on this parsha, they should be explained first, and only afterwards should people be warned against forbidden sexual relations and sin. As long as these principles have not been stated, how can we observe them? Certainly if we agree with the Ramban and say that this means we should avoid all things that may lead to sin, in accordance with the concept of “Sanctify yourself in permitted things” (Yebamot 20a), it is clear that it a great principle. However according to Rashi’s view, the difficulty remains.
I believe it is possible to say that the directive to be holy is given at the outset of the parsha in order to make us understand how serious forbidden sexual relations are in Hashem’s eyes. At the giving of the Torah, He commanded the Children of Israel to separate themselves from their wives, as it is written: “Do not draw near a woman” (Exodus 19:15), and as we know, Moses added one day on his own initiative (Shabbat 87a), a decision that G-d agreed with. Therefore Moses demonstrated even more strictness, for it was impossible to receive the holy Torah in a state of impurity. It is still surprising, despite all this, that even though the mitzvah of having children is crucial for the world’s survival (“He did not create it for emptiness; He fashioned it to be inhabited” – Isaiah 45:18), Moses nevertheless added an extra day of separation between man and wife. He did this because he feared that at the giving of the Torah, a licentious thought might give rise to impurity that was destructive both to body and soul, and G-d approved of it.
Moses no doubt felt that two days of separation were indeed enough to receive the Torah, it being understood that married life should be lived with the goal of assuring the world’s continuity and the desire to achieve purity. However Moses thought that it was better to establish an extra barrier to insure that the Torah was received in a state of complete readiness, without any trace of impurity. This teaches us just to what extent precautions should go, even with permitted things. Having children with one’s wife in complete purity also demands a special effort in sanctity, and if one wants to achieve an even greater level, he must separate himself still more and establish extra barriers. How much more is this true of things that are forbidden!
All this allows us to understand what Rashi said, namely that what the Torah means by holiness is a separation from forbidden sexual relations and sin, which represent the majority of, if not all, the Torah’s principles. This is because without abstinence and purity, we risk transgressing all the mitzvot. Actually, not only do forbidden sexual relations cause great harm, but also the simple fact of not being careful with one’s eyes, and speaking or thinking dangerous thoughts, for holiness is a preparation for all the mitzvot.
When we do everything to preserve our holiness – even if we have the misfortune of stumbling several times (by looking at indecent pictures, for example, which are the cause of many sins and are frequently displayed in public) – G-d in His great goodness protects us. It states, “The L-RD protects the simple” (Psalms 116:6), for a person is given help to follow the path that he truly desires to take (Makot 10b). G-d will protect him if he is careful, and even if he falls seven times, G-d will uplift him, as it is written: “Though the righteous one may fall seven times, he will arise” (Proverbs 24:16).
This is why G-d assembled the entire community and began with the words, “You shall be holy” – distance yourselves from forbidden sexual relations and from sin, and in this way you will be able to observe the entire Torah. The very fact of assembling everyone alludes to this idea, for when many people are gathered together (as during a family celebration), it is then that one must pay particular attention to keeping away from impurity and sin, and to behave with holiness.
A person should certainly not think that he is already so holy that he is incapable of transgressing a prohibition with his eyes, thoughts, or deeds, for this is the way that the evil inclination operates, leading a person to believe that he has already perfected himself. Now one should never forget that his end is “dust, maggots, and worms” (Perkei Avoth 3:1), and that death renders him impure. He therefore has no reason to boast about anything. Such was the strategy employed by the serpent, which said to Adam and Eve: “You shall be like G-d, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). By this the serpent meant, “G-d does not want you to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest you become like Him, for every artisan hates his fellow of the same craft” (Zohar I:36a). The evil inclination therefore tries to instill in people the belief that they are at a semi-divine level, hence the reason why G-d said to the Children of Israel before the entire community: “My holiness is superior to yours” (Vayikra Rabba 24:9). It was meant to convey the idea that in every situation, even one of abstinence, there is someone greater still, and therefore there is no reason to fall into this trap of the evil inclination.
This may be illustrated by an example in daily life. When someone is asked if he prays or gives to charity, he may reply, “Of course I do!” However the question really means, “Have you prayed as you should have, from beginning to end? Have you given to charity with the intention of fulfilling a mitzvah, that of helping your fellow [‘You shall love your fellow as yourself’ – Leviticus 19:18],” otherwise the mitzvah is not done to perfection and this person has lied, for he did not pray or give to charity as he should have. This all stems from the fact that the Satan accustoms people to believe that they are performing mitzvot, whereas in fact they are still far from doing so.
Likewise a boy who studies in yeshiva, yet wastes a great deal of his time, may say that he is in yeshiva, whereas this is but a lie and a plain illusion. It may be that he is physically in yeshiva, yet in losing time there – his time and that of others – he has, as the Mishnah puts it, “sinned and caused the many to sin” (Perkei Avoth 5:18). All this is the work of the Satan, which encourages people to lie by saying that they study in yeshiva when that is not at all the case. It is with respect to this that G-d enjoins us to flee from forbidden sexual relations and sin, holiness being the greatest mitzvah, for if we neglect it we damage all the others. At the same time, however, we should not lose sight of the fact that G-d’s holiness is greater than what we are even capable of imagining, for He has no need of us and possesses no body or corporal form (Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah, 1:8). This is what constitutes, “My holiness is superior to yours.”
The reason why “You shall be holy” comes before all the other mitzvot in the parsha is because all the others depend on it. Even for the Ramban, in each place that we find a barrier to forbidden sexual relations, we also find holiness, which comes back to the concept of “Sanctify yourself in permitted things” (Yebamot 20a), the basis of all things. The same applies to Rashi, for whom a person must distance himself from forbidden sexual relations by disregarding everything else, for this will lead him to carry out all the mitzvot, which also falls under the categories of holiness and distancing oneself from forbidden sexual relations. There is therefore no difference between the opinions of Rashi and Ramban.
Nevertheless, as we have already said, a person is helped to follow the path that he truly desires to take (Makot 10b), and if one sanctifies himself a little here below, he is sanctified above (Yoma 38b). This is due to the fact that there is no limit to the holiness that G-d many bestow upon a person, given that he doesn’t foolishly believe everything that the evil inclination whispers into his ear. With respect to this subject, the following incident once happened to me: Whenever I travel by airplane, whether alone or not, I always ask G-d that nothing unfortunate happens and that neither myself nor my companion be put to the test of immodesty by being seated next to a woman. This prayer is usually answered, yet one time I was traveling with Rav Shlomo Elmalem from France to New York, which is a fairly long trip, and although we prayed that the third seat in our row remain empty, a woman came and sat there. Since the airplane was full, there was nothing we could do but to hold fast in this trial, especially Rav Shlomo, who was seated next to the woman. Suddenly we witnessed a miracle: The woman was overtaken with tremendous anxiety and looked at us as if we were terrorists, begging someone to change seats with her. She was led away screaming to another part of the plane, and we thanked G-d for the kindness that He showed us, all because people are helped to follow that path that they truly want to take.
I will also recount under what circumstances I have always sensed this principle: Each time that I begin to speak in public, a certain someone – always the same person – gets up and leaves, with a different excuse each time. He goes to chat about meaningless things instead of devoting his free time to listening to words of Torah and getting closer to G-d. This is surprising because the person in question is G-d-fearing, observes mitzvot, gives to Tzeddakah, believes in the Tzaddikim, and supports Torah study. Why then does he leave, especially since he listens to all other Rabbis no less than once a week? It is because that person is helped to follow the path that he truly desires to take, to the point that someone who has no desire to listen to words of Torah always finds a reason to leave at exactly the point that a lecture begins. Since the lecture really bothers him, from Heaven he is sent a reason to leave (for example, his son begins to cry). However all this is just pretext; the real reason is his indifference to words of Torah. Once he has left, the Satan then whispers into his ear that he should go rest, or that he should go visit his family, or simply that he should go and talk – everything except study!
Now people should apply this teaching to holiness: If one sanctifies himself here below, he is sanctified above. The majority of the Torah’s fundamental principles depend on holiness, and if one sanctifies himself through chastity, he will be holy and pure in all mitzvot.
How Should a Person Conduct Himself?
The majority of the Torah’s principles depend on the holiness of Israel, particularly when people are gathered together, as during a family celebration, when one must be careful about prohibitions concerning sexual misconduct, be it only in thought. If we are careful about this, we will be careful about all mitzvot, for a person is helped to follow the path that he truly desires to take. He will then fortify himself in holiness and conquer the evil inclination that tries to make him stumble. Furthermore, such a person will not lie concerning mitzvot, and he will have the desire to hears words of Torah without seeking excuses to evade them, for the Torah gladdens the heart of G-d and man.