The portion of Kedoshim opens with an all-embracing imperative: “Holy shall you be, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The command to be holy is all-embracing in two senses: it applies to all people and it applies in all situations.
The Book of Vayikra focuses primarily on the holiness of the Tabernacle and the Kohanim, the priests. The Tabernacle is holy because God “dwells” in it, and the Kohanim are holy because they have been designated to officiate in the Temple and devote their lives to serving God and the Israelite people in this capacity. It would be reasonable to conclude, then, that holiness is limited to this one place and this one group of people. The Torah tells us here that this is not the case: “Holy shall you – each and every one of you – be, for I the Lord your God am holy. I am not merely the God of the Temple, I am God of the world. I am not merely the God of the priests, I am the God of all of you.”
The purpose of the Temple was not to limit God’s presence but to highlight it: “You shall build me a Temple, and I will dwell in your midst” (Ex. 25:7) – note that God dwells not in the Temple, but in “our midst” – among the entire nation and in the innermost midst of each individual. When God’s presence is palpably felt in the Temple, we become sensitized to God’s presence in all places. Through granting a special sanctity to the Kohanim, God gives us regular, concrete examples of human sanctity. These Kohanim can then serve as models to us in our own travels on the path towards holiness. We too often attempt to proscribe and compartmentalize God and holiness. Religion is something we do only in the synagogue, or only the job of rabbis, we say. To this the Torah responds: It is true that the Temple is holy and the priests are holy. But what is the purpose of such holiness? That I, God, may dwell in your midst. That you, the Jewish people, shall be holy, each and every one of you.
This mitzvah of holiness is universal in another sense. It applies in all situations. It is the spirit that gives life to the body of the Torah – the mitzvot. The mitzvot are the concrete embodiment of the values and beliefs of the Torah. But as concrete, finite laws they cannot address all situations. Moreover, performed just as laws, with no sense as to their purpose and inner essence, they are robbed of their vitality and become lifeless, inert shells. The Torah here commands us not to fool ourselves into believing that we can live a religious life just by following the mitzvot. To truly serve God means to be religious – to be God-oriented – and not just to be observant. This God-orientation is the commandment to be “Holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” – to direct all of one’s actions as a way of being close to God and of imitating God.
This religious striving will inform not only one’s performance of the mitzvot, but all of one’s actions. Without such orientation one might perform all the mitzvot but remain, in Nachmanides’ term, a ‘degenerate within the bounds of the Torah.’ With such an orientation, not only will one perform the mitzvot better, but one will become the type of person that the Torah demands him or her to be: a holy person.
We cannot do away with the mitzvot and focus on their values alone, because the mitzvot are the necessary expression of these values and the only way that these values can be lived, experienced, and internalized. But it is just as true that we cannot do away with the values and limit our religious life to one of mere observance. We cannot ignore the mitzvah of holiness that informs all the mitzvot and all of life. We, as Jews, must strive to be religious, as well as observant. We must strive to be holy, holy individuals and a holy nation, “because I the Lord your God am holy.”