“Be Holy!” is the stark command that introduces the parashah of Kedoshim. But the Torah leaves unanswered the question of how precisely we are to achieve this noble objective.
For some Rabbinic commentators, “holiness” is found in observing the commandments that precede this section – the requirements of sexual morality and integrity. For others the answer is to keep the mitzvot that follow in the text – a collection of instructions that cover every aspect of our lives and interactions, both “ritual” and interpersonal.
But for Nachmanides, the great scholar from thirteenth century Spain and Israel, the command to “be holy” refers to neither what was written before or after. Indeed, it relates to mitzvot that are not written anywhere in the Torah, because, by definition, they cannot be.
Nachmanides explains, with brilliant and sometimes painful insight, that it is theoretically possible to observe all of the Torah’s prohibitions on forbidden foods and forbidden sexual relations, and yet be so totally immersed in lusts and gluttonous desire for those items which the Torah permits, that one becomes “loathsome with the Torah’s permission”.
Therefore God gives us one “meta-command” which overrides all other permissions and prohibitions. “Be holy” is a call for moderation - to create sanctity by limiting our consumption – even of kosher food and other permitted pleasures. Since there are an infinite number of possible situations where one is faced with a choice between restraint and excess, it is not possible for the Torah to specify each one. Instead, it covers each of these opportunities for holiness through temperance by one single all-encompassing mitzva.
In our days of affluence and a standard of living higher than ever known before in history, it is tragically easy to be caught up in the cycle of ever-more acquisitions and consumptions. It is all too common to see behaviour that Nachmanides would classify as “loathsome with the Torah’s permission” – strictly avoiding non-kosher and other forbidden pleasures, and yet overindulging on the permitted ones. A life of over-eating and excessive drinking, even when scrupulously checking each hechsher, is not the path to holiness. Self-control is.
We are fortunate that we live in an age where kosher food is varied and plentiful. Even “regular” supermarkets have aisles dedicated to all manner of delicacies each bearing reputable kosher certification. Yet, in apparent contradiction to the opinion of some, the availability of these luxuries does generate a requirement to purchase and consume them all.
Indeed, our twenty-first century world gives even greater opportunities to fulfil the command of “be holy” as explained by Nachmanides. Not only are we blessed with such an abundance of permitted, kosher, physical pleasures, the zeitgeist of our society attempts to impose a culture of “anything goes” whenever some item or activity will add to one’s short-term gratification. It is in this challenging world that the Torah’s command to create sanctity through moderation is ever-more necessary, and ever more of an opportunity to improve our lives and our world.