The Torah does not say we are inherently a holy people. It says, in the start of this week’s parsha – kedoshim tehiyu. “You shall be holy.” Holiness requires work. It is not in our nature, but in our conduct. It is a path, a process, a staircase to climb. The Hasidic author of Sefat Emet points out that elsewhere the Torah says of kedushah, holiness, that it must happen hayom umahar “today and tomorrow.” Today and tomorrow forever, he says, because holiness is not a state but a never-ending process, a constant yearning and striving to do better.
What is it that we are aiming for in kedushah? The traditional explanation understands kedushah as a kind of separation or restraint, learning to control one’s appetites, especially in relation to food and sexual intercourse. Indeed, the statement kedoshim tehiyu at the beginning of this week’s parsha comes on the cusp of the list of prohibited sexual relationships at the end of last week’s parsha. And our own parsha concludes with a discussion of prohibited foods and sexual relationships, speaking of all these separations explicitly as an issue of kedushah.
But kedoshim tehiyu also seems to point in another direction. The parsha is filled with laws – from ethical business and legal edicts to a prohibition against revenge and laws protecting the poor and the stranger. Rav Sabato, a contemporary Israeli rabbi, says that the Torah gives us a double goal in this week’s parsha – kedushah and hesed, loving-kindness. On the one hand we are asked to hold back from things in the world that we would, in the natural course of things, be free to take part of. On the other hand, we are asked to give to others, to the world, more than is our natural obligation to give. We are asked to take less and give more, to practice both restraint and generosity.
Pe’ah, the practice of leaving a corner of one’s field unharvested for the poor, exemplifies how these two opposing tendencies actually work together. In this single mitzvah, one is asked to practice both restraint and generosity; hold yourself back from harvesting your entire field in order that you have something to give to the poor. Similarly, the prohibition against adultery is meant not only to hold you back from performing an improper deed, but also to preserve the family one is committed to, to insure that attention is sent in that direction and not another. Restraint and generosity go together in many mitzvot.
Learning to be both self-restrained and generous is a way of learning to be like God Himself. Kedoshim tehiyu ki kadosh ani, “Be holy for I am holy,” says God, both restrained – as in the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, God’s self-containment -- and open-handed, overflowing with the generosity of life.
We have reached the middle of the book of Leviticus, also called Torat Kohanim, the “Law of the Priests.” Perhaps this prescription to be kadosh like God Himself is meant only for the elite, for some special class of people like the priests. No. Kedoshim tehiyu is preceded by a call to all of Israel, kol adat benei Yisrael, which the rabbis say means that the parsha was given in a large communal gathering called hakhel. This kind of kedushah, this kind of striving for both restraint and generosity, is expected of every person in Israel. We are not inherently a holy people, but we are marked by our communal desire to become one.