You Shall Sanctify Yourselves and You Will be Holy1
The coda to the parshah of forbidden foods is as mysterious as it
is elegant. “I am Hashem your G-d, and you shall sanctify yourselves and
you will be holy, because I am holy.” This enigmatic formula is important
enough to appear, in one form or another, in regard to other areas, such
as forbidden relations and avodah zarah.
Why do these very different subjects all require this formula? Why does
the formula itself include an apparent tautology – you shall sanctify
yourselves and you will be holy? Why does the Torah provide a reason for
the commandment to be holy (“because I am holy”), and how does that reason
explain anything at all? It seems to say that if G-d is holy, we should
become as well, since it is proper to become what He is. But can human
beings become what He is?
Ramban provides the insight to unravel the mystery. Where the Torah’s
attaches the prohibition of eating from an animal that is a
terefah, to the words “People of holiness you shall be,” Ramban2 comments, “I desire that you be people of
holiness, so that it you will be fit for you to cling to Me Who is holy.
Therefore, do not make yourselves abominable by eating detestable
things.” In other words, Hashem desires that Jews cling to him, and
provides guidance to us to avoid foods which result in the soul become
coarser, and which block the acquisition of holiness.
The seforim hakedoshim provide the larger context to this thought.
The ultimate purpose of all mitzvos, they emphasize, is to bring an
individual to devekus. Should a person observe the entirety of
Torah and mitzvos but fail to attach himself to HKBH, he is deficient in
achieving the purpose of all the mitzvos.
This, then, is the fuller meaning of our passage: Sanctify yourselves by
eschewing all things that distance you from Me. Avoid all things that
distance a person from Me, that make you coarser and more material, that
lead you away from Me, rather than assist you in clinging to me. You shall
be holy because I am holy. By reason of that holiness, I cannot abide
things that oppose kedushah and distance people from Me; in order
to refine yourselves to the utmost, you are to eat only refined foods.
As we stated above, the Torah employs a similar formula regarding
kedushah in regard to both illicit relations and avodah
zarah. Both of these transgressions inevitably drive a person further
away from Hashem, distancing him from the goal of intense closeness to Him.
The centrality of devekus in the mitzvah system leads to a
different understanding of a familiar story. The potential convert who
came to Hillel asked for a synopsis of Torah that he could absorb while
standing on one leg. Hillel accepted the challenge, and offered his
famous summary: What is distasteful to you, do not do
lechavrecha.3 The Magid saw in
this last word a form of lechavrusecha, i.e. your ability to
associate and bond with Hashem. Hillel told his interlocutor that the
purpose of Torah, simply put, was to create real attachment between Man
and his Creator. All the rest is commentary.
Another passage in Ramban offers yet greater insight into this principle.
At the beginning of Kedoshim4 he
famously warns us not to become “disgusting with the sanction of the
Torah.” The exhortation towards kedushah comes after a detailed
listing of illicit relations. The message is clear. Beyond the
restrictions that are legally fixed and normative to all, the Torah
expects us to firmly integrate kedushah into all our behavior,
including activities that are permissible, and violate no clear
stricture. We note that the same structure applies to our
parshah. The statement about kedushah serves as an abstract
of the section on forbidden foods. It is placed, however, precisely in
the same position as the kedushah passage attached to the section
on illicit relations – right at the end. Here, too, the implication is
that we are to understand that the complex system of forbidden foods is
only a beginning, a platform common to the entire community. Besides the
strictly forbidden, we must find ways to elevate, to sanctify the
permissible food that we eat as well.
Chazal5 uncover another element in the
verse that provides the title to this piece. “When a person sanctifies
himself a little, they [i.e. the heavenly hosts] sanctify him a great
deal.” The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh tells us6 that forbidden foods defile us even when consumed
inadvertently. Their potency leaves their mark even without any intent to
transgress. A person will not be punished for inadvertent transgression
as he would for deliberate transgression, but his neshamah will be
marred nonetheless. This is the “great” sanctification that is provided
by heaven. When a person is careful to consciously avoid vile matters
that are within his power, Heaven protects him against things that are not
within his power.
Alternatively, the berachah the gemara speaks of can be understood
in the light of the distinction the Ramchal makes7 between the levels of taharah and
kedushah. The former deals with completely avoiding anything with
negative impact; the latter turns pedestrian objects into holy ones,
enabling all ordinary objects and events to bring nachas ruach, as
it were, to HKBH. Ramchal cautions us that this level cannot be attained
by us directly. Rather, we can only begin the process. Its completion is
a Divine gift to us. This, too, is part of “You shall sanctify yourselves
and you will be holy.” When you begin the journey towards
kedushah, Hashem will carry you the rest of the way.
Chazal8 apply a familiar pasuk to
eating the korban Pesach. “The ways of Hashem are straight. The
righteous walk in them, and sinners stumble over them.”9 Two people partake of a korban Pesach, side by
side. One eats for the sake of Heaven; the other gorges himself. The
former is the tzadik of the verse, while the latter is the sinner.
Why do they apply this verse specifically to eating the Pesach, rather
than to any and all eating, if everything can be transmuted to
kedushah? What Chazal are saying, it would seem, is that it is hard
to conceive of a greater sin than spurning an opportunity to eat the very
food in front of him for the sake of the mitzvah of Pesach, instead
turning his eating into the opposite of the experience for which it was
A Jew must understand that he is obligated to believe that Hashem’s
announcement, “You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy
nation,”10 means that he has the
ability to get there. A Jewish neshamah is likened to a diamond.
If it falls into the mud, its internal luster is never lost. You must
merely lift it up, remove the dirt, and it will shine as brilliantly as
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 44-48 2 Shemos 22:30 3 Usually translated (following Rashi Shabbos 31A) as
either “to your (human) friend,” or “to your (Divine) Friend.” 4 Vayikra 19:2 5 Yoma 39A 6 Vayikra 11:43 7 Mesilas Yesharim, ch. 26 8 Nazir 23A 9 Hoshea 14:10 10 Shemos 19:6