Sanctify Yourself in What is Permitted

It is written, “You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy” (Vayikra 19:2).

In Sefer Vayikra we find the commandment, “You shall be holy,” which means “You shall be separate.” Likewise in Parsha Shemini we read, “You are to sanctify yourselves and you shall become holy, for I am holy” (Vayikra 11:44). The Midrash explains, “As I am separate, so shall you be separate. As I am holy, so shall you be holy” (Vayikra Rabba 24:4).

We need to understand what the Midrash means by this. What human being can claim to have reached the supreme degree of holiness of the King of kings, Who is surrounded by angels that fear and tremble before Him? The evil inclination resides in the heart of man, trying to make him stumble with each step and doing everything it can to lead him onto the wrong path. Can we possibly think, despite all the difficulties that hinder our service of G-d, that we can lift ourselves to such high levels of sanctity? That being the case, how can our holiness resemble that of the Creator, and what comparison can be made with Him?

On the verse, “Every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:23), our Sages explain that this refers to the day of birth, when a person is made to swear an oath: “Be righteous and never be wicked; and even if the whole world tells you, ‘You are righteous,’ consider yourself wicked. Always bear in mind that the Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, that His ministers are pure, and that the soul He gave you is pure. If you preserve it in purity, well and good; if not, I will take it away from you” (Niddah 30b). This oath, however, seems to be based on an erroneous assumption, for can a person know what awaits him in this world? Does he know just to what degree he must persevere against the evil inclination? When taking this oath, a person’s soul is in the supernal worlds, where evil is absent. He is not subjugated to the evil inclination and obviously thinks that being righteous (not wicked) is the clear choice. He is thus clearly prepared to take an oath to this. Yet when a person comes into this world and is confronted by difficult trials, he seems to step back and regrets the oath that he made, for he did not initially realize that he would have to fight the evil inclination.

With G-d’s help, I would like to explain that before a person’s arrival into this world, and even before he takes an oath, everyone is shown all the difficulties and trials that he must face. Before a person takes an oath, he is warned that difficult battles await him. Hence he clearly understands what he is swearing to and what awaits him, and therefore it is not a false oath.

The Gemara tells us, “A light shines above the head [of the fetus], and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other” (Niddah 30b). It is shown the whole world, along with all the trials it must face, so that it can understand where it is going. It is told that in order to win the battles that await it, it must ensure that this light remains constantly shining above its head, meaning the light of the Torah. It is then assured of winning the war against the evil inclination. Thus even before taking this oath, a person is aware of what he must endure in this world, meaning that his oath is valid.

A person is made to take an oath precisely while his soul is still in the supernal worlds, where it is surrounded by holiness and purity, a place of sanctity and without blemish. This happens so that the soul can infuse itself with holiness, and so that – at the very instant, immersed by the tremendous forces of holiness found in the supernal worlds – this can serve as the impetus for a life of perfection, a life in which a person must confront the trials found along his path. Before descending into this world, G-d gives a person all the strength he needs to fight the evil inclination, providing him with the reserves of holiness and purity that he requires. Thus a person arrives in this world equipped with spiritual sustenance that serves as a weapon against the evil inclination. He also has the strength to keep his oath, for G-d does not send trials to people if they cannot overcome them.

This connects with the explanation of our Sages on the verse, “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out” (Devarim 28:6). Here the Sages explained, “That your departure from the world shall be as your entry into it: Just as you entered it without sin, so may you leave it without [sin]” (Bava Metzia 107a). This is what is required of us: Since we came into this world infused with supreme holiness and possessing great strength, we must be careful not to lose these, for we must leave this world with exactly the same degree of holiness that surrounded us upon our arrival.

That is why G-d commands us, “Be holy.” This does not mean reaching G-d’s level, which is clearly impossible. We must be as holy as we were before descending into this world, to the time when we absorbed the purity that emanated from the Celestial Throne. If we draw this holiness to ourselves, G-d will provide us with additional holiness, as it is written: “I am Hashem, Who sanctifies you” (Vayikra 20:8). We understand what holiness this consists of, for we were infused with it even before being born. Such holiness is rooted deep within us, and G-d reminds us of the oath that we took to be righteous and not wicked. We must therefore carefully guard this holiness so as not to lose it, and we must use this power to eradicate the evil inclination and merit eternal life.

This is what G-d is telling us by the phrase “Be holy.” The Zohar adds that all the mitzvot given by G-d constitute sage advice and implements that allow us to attain this level of holiness. That being the case, we have the ability to maintain this exceptional level of holiness. Indeed, the keys to achieving it are completely in our hands, for we have everything we need to succeed.


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