Parashat Kedoshim: What Does “Holy” Mean?
Parashat Kedoshim begins with the command of "Kedoshim Tiheyu" – that we be "holy."
The term "holy" conjures up different associations among different people, the common denominator being that they have a hard time defining it. When people are asked to define the term "holy," they start waving their hands and speaking incoherently, or perhaps begin describing some pious person who they feel embodies the ideal of "holiness." But if the Torah commands us to be "holy," we need to do much better than that. If we are obligated to be "Kedoshim," it behooves us to have a clear idea of what this entails.
When a couple gets married, the groom declares to the bride before giving her the ring, "Hareh At Mekudeshet Li" – that she is "Mekudeshet." Literally, this word means "holy," but clearly the groom’s intent is not to declare that his bride is now "holy" because she is marrying him. Rather, his intent is to proclaim that she is set apart and designated for him. Until that moment, she is like other women in the world, but now she is designated for her groom, set apart and distinct from all other women.
Similarly, when a person wishes to consecrate an animal as a sacrifice, he declares, "Hareh Zeh Hekdesh" – "Behold, this [animal] is sacred." An animal cannot be "holy" in the conventional sense of the term. It follows its instincts and has no moral or spiritual conscience such that it could achieve "holiness" in the sense of piety and attachment to G-d. But this is not, technically speaking, what "holiness" really means. When a person proclaims, "Hareh Zeh Hekdesh," he means to say that the animal is now different and special. It is not the same as other animals. All other animals are ordinary, but this one is special, designated for the lofty purpose of being brought as an offering to the Almighty.
This is what "holiness" means. It means being different, distinct and special. It means being set apart for something beyond the norm, beyond what is ordinary for everything or everyone else.
On the basic level, then, "Kedoshim Tiheyu" means being different and distinct from other nations of the world. It means striving for and maintaining a moral standard that is discernibly higher than that of the rest of the world. "Kedoshim Tiheyu" requires that the Jewish people must stand out through their refined, moral conduct and their devotion to G-d’s laws. It requires us not to feel satisfied with the standards that other nations find acceptable. We must be different and live on a fundamentally higher plane.
It might be tempting to follow the standards and norms of our society, to enjoy the convenience of doing what the others around us are doing. But the command of "Kedoshim Tiheyu" obligates us to strive for more, to ensure that we stand out through our moral standards, that people notice how we are different and live on a higher plane. This is the true meaning of "holiness." Acting as others do is not sufficient. We are to be "Kedoshim" – noticeably distinct and special, so that we bring honor and glory to G-d.