“Be holy!” (Vayikra 19:2) This commandment in the Torah seems powerful in its simplicity but, upon examination, actually seems elusive regarding its meaning.
How exactly can someone “be holy?” What does “holy” mean? Nachmanides (1194 – 1270, also known as Ramban), the Spanish physician, Bible commentator, Talmudist and philosopher, explains that this is not a typical commandment that requires performance of a particular action or commemoration. Rather, writes Nachmanides in his commentary to this verse, this commandment embodies the “spirit” of the law in Judaism – it is a general commandment that impacts many aspects of life. The word holy means separate. If so, “Be holy” means to separate ourselves from something; but what is it that we must separate from?
Although the Torah system contains many commandments that restrict a person’s behavior, it does not categorically prohibit any behavior. It disallows only some forms of a specific type of behavior and does not disallow others. For example, the Torah forbids some intimate relationships but allows marriage. It forbids many foods but allows consumption of meat, wine and many other desirable foods. This being the case, a person could technically live within the Torah’s laws but nevertheless maintain a preoccupation with a hedonistic lifestyle – in a glatt kosher way. The commandment of holiness – Be Holy! – preempts the idea of a decadent Jew. Judaism condones indulgence, but only to an extent: we must be defined by and preoccupied with spirituality, religiosity, and wisdom rather than the ephemeral, the physical and the material.