“Observe My decrees and My laws, which man will perform so that he will live by them” [Vayikra 18:5].
“Be holy, for I am holy” [Vayikra 19:2]. The ability of man, a physical creature, to reach for and to create holiness is not obvious. A number of commentators have tried to explain this command. How does a person become holy, what is the essence of human sanctity?
The dispute between Rashi and the Ramban about this matter is well known. Rashi feels that the above command is related to the prohibition of illicit sexual encounters. “Keep away from illicit or exaggerated sex.” The sexual prohibitions appear in Chapter 18 of Vayikra. At the end of the list, the Torah devotes an additional verse to prevent man from becoming too deeply involved in sex (even acts that are permitted), “since wherever you find sexual limits you can also find sanctity.”
Experience shows that Rashi is correct in his feeling that sexual urge is a serious challenge to mankind. Holiness is created by man’s restraint and control.
The Ramban disagrees with this analysis. “As far as I am concerned, this passage is not referring to abstaining from sexual encounters, as Rashi writes. Rather, this piety is the intention whenever the Talmud mentions people who are called ‘perushim’ – the pious ones.” Man is commanded not to become “a villain within the limits of the Torah.”
According to the Ramban, a Jew can observe all the details of Torah commands and fulfill the halacha perfectly but still live a life of wild behavior and imbalance. In order to prevent this from happening, the Torah commanded us to “be holy.” The Ramban feels that the mitzvot are minimum and not maximum demands. If a man wants to become like the Holy One, Blessed be He, and to be holy, he must learn to control his desires.
Both Rashi and the Ramban demand that man learn to control his urges. The Torah portion of Acharei Mot turns our attention to sexual lust, and the portion of Kedoshim points us to social life, where we are concerned with money, control of poor people, and courts. And between the two portions, the command to “Be holy” demands that mankind live a full life while controlling the good and not being inundated by it. Holiness is created when a person manages to control his urges and they do not control him. As is written in the Midrash, “Evil people are controlled by their hearts, while the hearts of the righteous people are under their control.”
When I was a child, whenever we came home from the synagogue on Shabbat and were surrounded by the pleasant odors of Shabbat, we would demand from our father (the late Rav Lichtenstein) that he immediately recite the Kiddush so that we could eat. And he always responded calmly but in a definite tone: “The basic question of our lives is who controls whom – is your stomach in charge, or are you in charge of your stomach?”
Many years have passed since then, but that same question resounds louder than ever in the Torah portion of Kedoshim, from both the commentaries of Rashi and the Ramban: Who is in control? Are you in control or are your urges in control? This is true for sex, food, money, sleep, and fame, among other things.
So it was in my youth, and so it still is for all of us today.