Kedushah is Not Optional1
By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
It makes no sense. Why do people who pride themselves on meticulousness in
observance, people who take upon themselves all sorts of stringencies in
the practice of the law, nonetheless ignore a Torah precept of monumental
Kedoshim tihiyu is not ignored because of its obscurity. People
readily understand its implications. On the one hand, it means avoiding
all things that are the opposite of kedushah. On the other, it
means not moving away from something, but towards something else: making
the changes towards becoming a living essence of holiness. (The conclusion
of the verse – “because I am Hashem your G-d” more than alludes to this.
You are to become holy like I am holy, not merely in the avoidance of the
kedushah is the source and foundation of the Jewish people, and a
critical part of its unique loftiness; it is its spiritual foundation.
The Zohar takes note of the three-fold use of the word kodesh
in a single verse: “You are to sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy,
for I am holy.” The Zohar sees in this an allusion to different forms
of kedushah in the worlds of asiyah, yetzirah, and
beriah.  These worlds mediate our actions, our spirit, and
out souls. Practically, this means that we can find places for
kedushah in our deeds, in our wants and desires, and in bringing to
light the bond between our neshamos and their source in the upper
If kedushah is so basic and so important, why is its pursuit so
neglected? The culprit seems to be a common and toxic misconception.
kedushah is all about lofty elevation, and so many people see
themselves – quite realistically – as so distant from this kind of
attainment, that they see any special quest for holiness as remote and
This is a tragic error. Kedoshim tihiyu is a mitzvah just like all
others. It applies to all Jews, regardless of their spiritual standing. It
most certainly applies to Jews whose avodah is stuck in the world
of asiyah, the lowest of them all, still doing battle with himself
regarding activities that are completely forbidden. Were a person to argue
that a particular mitzvah of the Torah was not relevant to him, we would
brand him a heretic. Why should we assume that kedoshim tihiyu is
How can a person who is mired in his lowly desires supposed to approach
the pursuit of the holiness, when he is so out of step with its nature?
The answer is quite simple. The mitzvah is in the attempt. A person must
do whatever he can do. What he achieves thereafter is irrelevant. The
fulfillment of the mitzvah is in trying one’s best.
Mesilas Yesharim explains the subtle difference between taharah
and kedushah. The former involves escaping from all contaminants.
Because all material pursuits – even those entirely removed from any tinge
of prohibition or impropriety – carry with them a shadow of contamination,
of pulling the person towards his material facets, the tahoreschews
any involvement with them, unless absolutely compelled to utilize them for
his own survival.
The kadosh, however, does not run from things of this world, but
warmly accepts them. The tahor still needs to escape their appeal
and their downward pull; the kadosh treasures each one as he
elevates them, transforming their physicality into. The tahor eats
little so that the excess will not weigh him down; the kadosh turns
his food into a korban. Both of them are part of the mitzvah of
kedoshim tihiyu, which Ramban identifies with the epigram “sanctify
yourself with what is permissible to you.” This implies that a person will
not be “gluttonous with the permission of the Torah” – he will avoid
excess. But it also implies that he will take the objects that are
permissible to him, and sanctify them by elevating them.
The Torah exhorts us to kedushah three times in Parshas
Kedoshim, in reference to forbidden relations, avodah
zarah, and forbidden foods. These references underscore three areas
in which we need to strive for kedushah. The connection to arayos
is self-explanatory. The reference to avodah zarah instructs
us to seek kedushah in our system of beliefs. There are notions
that we are not forbidden to harbor, yet diminish our pure and untarnished
emunah. kedushah implies keeping them at arm’s length. The
reference to food tells us to elevate the way we eat, even when our food
products are kosher.
Three distinct sources of kedushah are available to us from which
to draw. kedushah resides in all our mitzvos, and in the Torah we
learn. (We make mention of this kedushah in the berachah we
recite: “asher kidshanu” – Who has sanctified us.) Special times
and seasons, like Shabbos and the yomim tovim are fonts of special
kedushah available to us. (Here, too, we mention that
kedushah in the berachah that accompanies these times:
“mekadesh Yisrael ve-ha-zaminim” – Who sanctifies Yisrael and the
festival seasons. This means that HKBH sanctifies us by allowing us to
draw kedushah from the special appointed times.)
The third source is the most onerous. We find kedushah in the hard
work of breaking our lusts and desires. (Yesod Ha-avodah urged
people to actively resist their wants and longings – even when no trace of
sin was involved. We become masters of ourselves by resisting those inner
voices that make demands upon us.) Our individual will is the fortress of
the yetzer hora, the place he can call home. kedushah, on
the other hand, is the dominion of the soul from Above. The will and the
soul are locked in perpetual conflict for supremacy. When one rises, the
Curiously, the standard works that enumerate the 613 mitzvos fail to
include kedoshim tihiyu. Why is this all-important requirement not
formally part of the inventory of Divine demands upon us? We might find an
answer to this question in the Ran’s approach to the akeidah.
Hashem begins His speech to Avraham, asking him to slaughter Yitzchok,
with the words kach na.  Chazal tell us that the word
na has the effect of making this a request. This means, says the
Ran, that Hashem never instructed Avraham to slaughter his son, so much as
revealed to him that He would be pleased if Avraham would do so. Avraham
faced no Divine retribution if he failed to comply. He acted completely
volitionally, only to bring satisfaction kivayachol, to his
Creator. The idea behind kedoshim tihiyu is the same. It
differentiates between those who submit to the Will of their Creator, and
those who love Him so much that they strive in everything they do to
please Him. It is therefore in a class to itself, and not cut of the same
cloth as the 613 mitzvos.
In the final analysis, we are still plagued by a crucial question. If
striving for kedushah is mandatory for all of us, how can its
requirements be met by those of us who still find ourselves stuck in the
clutches of the yetzer hora, whose yetzer does not let up,
and allows us no peace? The Torah provides a model for us. We know that
there are sections of the Torah ordered precisely as we would expect them
to be. At the same time, we are aware of sections that are presented in
the text out of the order in which they chronologically occurred.
The same holds true of our avodah. The active mitzvos allow for no
change or innovation. They must be performed according to the
specification of halachah, without deviation. Nothing else will do.
The mitzvos that apply to the inner person also follow a prescribed order.
The requirements here, however, is not as exacting. At times, a person can
and should perform these mitzvos out of their assigned order. While we
generally advocate sur meira before the asei tov - desisting
from evil before working on the performance of the good -there can be
exceptions. A person must sometimes make progress by jumping over
obstacles, and – in what otherwise would be considered a premature step –
reaching for a higher level. In chassidus, this approach is called “over
and over.” When a person faces obstacles in his progress, when that
progress in fighting the attraction of aveirah proceeds too slowly,
he must sometimes jump to a higher level of performance of the good.
How can this work? The explanation is quite simple. Sometimes, taking up
residence on a higher plane gives a person the needed perspective to look
down upon the evil within him, to detest it, and thereby give him the
resolve to do something about it.
The view is indeed different at the top, and we do not all arrive at the
same place. Setting off on the ascent, however, is expected of all of us.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, vol. 2, pgs. 122-126
3. Vayikra 11:44
4. Taken from the three verbs for “creating” at the beginning of
Bereishis, they are three of the four spiritual “worlds” referred to in
much kabbalisitc thought.
5. Chapter 26
6. Derashos Ha-Ran 6
7. Bereishis 22:2
8. Cited by Rashi, ibid.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org