This week’s parsha opens with God issuing the following command to Moshe:
דַּבֵּר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy.
Moshe instructs the Jewish nation that they have an obligation to “be holy” just “as God is holy.” The clear and obvious issue here is that “being holy” is a rather vague obligation. What does it mean to “be holy”, and how are we to fulfill this dictum of the Torah? Rashi, for one, explains as follows:
קדשים תהיו. הֱווּ פְרוּשִׁים מִן הָעֲרָיוֹת וּמִן הָעֲבֵרָה, שֶׁכָּל מָקוֹם שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹצֵא גֶדֶר עֶרְוָה אַתָּה מוֹצֵא קְדֻשָּׁה, אִשָּׁה זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה וְגוֹ' אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם (ויקרא כ"א), וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל זַרְעוֹ, אֲנִי ה' מְקַדְּשׁוֹ (שם), קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ, אִשָּׁה זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה (שם):
YOU SHALL BE HOLY — This means, keep away from illicit sexual relations previously mentioned and from sinful thoughts. [It is evident that this is the meaning of קדשים תהיו because] wherever you find in the Torah a command to fence yourself in against such relations you also find mention of “holiness”. Examples are: (Leviticus 21:7) “[They shall not take] a wife that is a harlot, or a profane etc.", and in the next verse "for I, the Lord, who sanctifieth you, [am holy]"; (Leviticus 21:15) “Neither shall he profane his seed (by the forbidden unions mentioned in the preceding verses) for I the Lord do sanctify him"; (Leviticus 21:6) "They shall be holy… followed by (v. 7) "[they shall not take] a wife that is a harlot or a profane" (cf. Vayikra Rabbah 24).
According to Rashi, one fulfills the Biblical command to “be holy” via abstaining and keeping away from the arayos, the various prohibited sexual acts and licentiousness. While at face value this would seem to make a whole lot of sense as an explanation for what it means to “be holy,” upon closer examination Rashi’s opinion seems to fall apart. First of all, why does Rashi bring his proof-texts solely from commandments related to the kohanim? Surely, the ordinary Jew is prohibited from many sexual acts as well, but Rashi does not seem to cite such prohibitions; why? Second, despite Rashi’s contention otherwise, there are, in fact, numerous places in the Torah where sexual prohibitions are indeed listed without any mention of kedusha at all (see Deut. 23:3 or Lev. 18 for a few such examples). Finally, if all of the arayos are themselves forbidden acts, why would the Torah need to tack on a further command to refrain from them via “being holy”? Are not the actual, original prohibitions themselves enough?
In answer to all these questions, R. Avigdor Boncheck calls attention to Rashi’s particular and precise word choice in his above comment. Rashi does not, in fact, contend that the Torah includes the concept of kedusha anytime the arayos are mentioned at all, but rather only when the Torah speaks of “fences around arayos”. Fences, or gedarim, are by definition restrictions that go “above and beyond the letter of the law” so as to prevent a person from possibly ever violating the actual prohibition itself. This explains why Rashi only quoted posukim dealing with the kohanim, as only the kohanim were obligated in such extra gedarim — that is, until the Torah here commands all of klal Yisrael to live up to this higher standard of kedusha. “Being holy” means to refrain from even that which might only bring one to violate one of the arayos. True holiness requires going beyond the letter of the law and refraining from even that which might be technically permitted by the letter of the law itself.
Ramban, in his commentary on Lev. 19:2, takes this entire notion one step further and applies it to all aspects of life. He explains that, were it not for this catch-all requirement here to “be holy,” hedonism and overindulgence would technically be permissible according to the letter of Torah law. Nevertheless, a person that lives in such a manner would be called “a disgusting person with the permission of the Torah,” not a title to which anyone should aspire. Indeed, it is precisely this that the Torah comes to prohibit via the edict of “kedoshim tihiyu.”
To “be holy just as God is holy” means that just as God is totally separate and transcendent from all that is finite, so should our separation be from that which is prohibited by the Torah. While this entire commandment is but a small fraction of just a single posuk, it is without a doubt one of the most difficult and challenging commandments of the Torah to fulfill. Nevertheless, as with the entirety of the Torah, it is to this level of living that we are meant to aspire, and to this perfection and purity that we are meant to strive towards and desire, even as we inevitably fail. The pursuit of this perfection, and the journey along its twisty, winding path full of failures — is ultimately all God demands of us.