Getting into "Hashem's Head"

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: You should be sanctified, for I, Hashem your

L-rd am sanctified. (Sefer VaYikra 19:2)

I. Attention to the Torah's overt meaning

The Torah can be interpreted at many levels. Each passage has an overt meaning. A more careful analysis of the passage and review of the Oral Tradition provides additional layers of meaning. A unique characteristic of the Torah is that all these interpretations are valid and true. Both the overt or manifest message and deeper levels of meaning deserve our attention. However, the richness and breadth of the commentary on each passage sometimes distract us from the manifest message of the passage. A complete understanding of the passage must include the identification of this overt message.

There is a substantial body of commentary on the above passage. The commentaries provide many interpretations of the passage and uncover many messages. But the overt meaning must also be identified. This is difficult. 

We are commanded to be sacred because Hashem is sacred. We are directed to emulate Hashem's sanctity. The commandment is vague. What precisely does it require of us?

II. The meaning of kadosh

The first step in identifying the meaning of the passage is to consider its declaration that Hashem is sacred. What does this mean? In what sense does the term kadosh – sacred or sanctified – apply to Hashem? This is an important question. It must be addressed to understand this passage. Also, it is important because we often refer to Hashem as kadosh. This is the essence of the Amidah's third benediction. We declare: You are sacred and Your name is sacred. To make this declaration with sincerity, we must understand the meaning of kadosh when applied to Hashem.

Let us begin by identifying the meaning of kadosh in some more common applications. We refer to the Jewish people as kadosh. Shabbat is sanctified. The Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – is kadosh. People, time, and space can be sanctified. What does kadosh mean in these applications?

In each of these instances the sanctity – kedushah – is created through selection and elevation through halachah – Torah law. The sanctity of the Jewish people is created by the six hundred thirteen mitzvot we are charged to observe. These mitzvot distinguish us from other nations and elevate us. Shabbat is distinguished from other times by its mitzvot. These mitzvot designate it as a time for rest from melachah – material creative endeavor. The Bait HaMikdash is distinguished from all other areas by the many mitzvot that apply to it. Kedushah is created through halachahHalachah creates kedushah through distinguishing people, time, or space and exalted them above similar people, times, or places.

III. Hashem's kedushah

How does the term kedushah apply to Hashem? He is not governed by halachah and it does not grant Him His uniqueness. The answer is that Hashem creates kedushah through halachah. Through it, he distinguishes and elevates people, time, or space. However, His kedushah is not derived from an external source. It is not bestowed upon Him. He is innately distinguished from and elevated above all other existences. He is the only true unity. Hashem is the cause of His own existence and is the source of all else that exists. He is the only eternal existence. 

In short, kedushah describes something distinguished and elevated. People, time, and space can be endowed with kedushah through halachah. Hashem's kedushah is not bestowed; it is innate. He is unique, distinguished from, and elevated above all other existences. 

IV. Sanctifying oneself

What does our passage require of us? How do we become kadosh? Rambam – Maimonides – addresses this issue. He explains that we acquire kedushah through the observance of the mitzvot.[1] The passage directs us to observe the mitzvot. The mitzvot are the source of our sanctity.[2] We are directed to emulate Hashem by distinguishing and elevating ourselves through observance. By distinguishing ourselves from other people and nations we emulate Hashem, Who is distinguished from all other existences.

V. Hashem's benevolence

Rav Shimon Shkop offers additional insight into our passage. He suggests that we may emulate Hashem in another manner. Hashem is perfectly benevolent. He is perfect and needs nothing to sustain or complete Him. Yet, He created us and sustains us, and gave us the Torah. He does not benefit from our endeavors. He is not completed or improved from our observance of His commandments. His kindness to us is completely without self-gain. Rav Shkop suggests that our passage urges us to imitate Hashem through performing chesed – through benefiting and helping others. Of course, we cannot be perfectly selfish. Nonetheless, we can emulate Hashem and strive to put aside self-interest and act with compassion and love toward others.[3] 

VI. Understanding Hashem's Torah

It is appropriate to add an insight attributed to Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik – GRIZ. Reportedly, he commented that his father – Rav Chaim – explained that one who closes his Gemara to perform an act of kindness will discover that his Gemara is open.  But one who opens his Gemara to avoid performing an act of kindness will discover that his Gemara is closed.[4] The superficial meaning of this comment is that one who interrupts learning Torah to perform an act of kindness will prosper and advance in learning. A student who immerses in learning to avoid the burden of assisting others will undermine his learning.  Why is this? What led Rav Chaim to this conclusion?   

Rav Shkop's comments explain Rav Chaim's position. When one wishes to study and appreciate any work it is helpful and often necessary to be able to adopt the author's perspective. This perspective may be essential to understanding the author's arguments and conclusions. Without the appreciation of the author's perspective, his thoughts are inaccessible to the reader. 

The Torah is Hashem's creation. It is His message to humanity. He is perfectly benevolent and the Torah's contents and its mitzvot reflect Hashem's – its author's – chesed. A student who is self-centered and lacks compassion and love for others is handicapped. This student cannot study the Torah effectively. This student is alienated from Hashem's perspective and cannot view the Torah from this perspective. A student who emulates Hashem's benevolence, who acts with kindness and love toward others is better prepared to appreciate the Torah's message and its mitzvot.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Fourth principle.

[2] Is a Jewish person sanctified by the obligation of the commandments or by the observance of these commandments? The obligation of the mitzvot bestows kedushah. However, without observance of the commandments, the kedushah exists in only an abstract sense. This person is distinguished by his or her designation as one commanded in the observance of the commandments. However, this person's kedushah is not expressed beyond this designation. The person who observes the commandments is distinguished in both designation and the character of the person's behavior and life. This person endows his or her behavior and very life with sanctity.

[3] See: Rav Shimon Shkop, Sha'arai Yosher, Introduction. Rav Shkop develops this idea more thoroughly. The above is not intended as a summary of his position. It is a reference to a single element in his analysis.

[4] Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim on Pirke Avot, p 26.