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Posted on May 9, 2024 (5784) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Speak to the entire assembly of the Bnei Yisrael and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy.”[1]

A midrash[2] homes in on our pasuk including its reference to “the entire assembly.” It must be telling us, says the midrash, that our parshah was related to the people in a great assembly. Rav Eliyahu Mizrahi objects. How is this different from everything else in the Torah? All of it was conveyed to the entire people!

Ramban teaches that the holiness instruction tells us to avoid excess even in things that are entirely permissible. We practice holiness by voluntarily eschewing pleasures that are allowed to us, so that we will not become ensnared by baser drives that can lead to sin. Now, the person who already, for example, eats entirely for the sake of Heaven has no reason whatsoever to further curtail his intake of food. He has already stripped his eating of any self-indulgence. Aharon, for example, did not have to hear any warnings about how failure to self-regulate his diet could make him a very small person. The exhortation to be holy was not meant for him, nor for people like him. Rather, it was aimed at the “assembly of the Bnei Yisrael,” i.e. the vast majority of the nation who did not yet live spiritually supercharged lives.

Our pasuk is actually not the first time we have come across an instruction to be holy. At the end of parshas Shemini, the Torah teaches, “You are to sanctify yourselves and you shall become holy, for I am holy.”[3] The context, however, is the long set of rules about forbidden foods. Avoiding the ones that Hashem tells us are spiritually harmful elevates us. We become holier – but only relative to the other nations who are not discerning about what they eat. This relative holiness is not what we are instructed to achieve in our pasuk, which is true holiness. This holiness comes from our voluntary avoidance of excess, of enjoying more than we need. We do so because we strive to imitate the spiritual beings of the Upper World, who are aloof from physical pleasure.

It is precisely after that warning in Shemini that we are told once more in our pasuk to be holy. The earlier verse addressed our need to act differently than the nations of the world, and lead relatively holier lives. Our pasuk tells us that it is insufficient to practice relative holiness. We need to strive for real, essential holiness. For this reason, this mitzvah was given at “assembly of the Bnei Yisrael,” when we stood apart from everyone else, and looked only to ourselves, and not how we could be measured relative to others.

We can offer another approach as well. The gemara describes how Moshe conveyed each section of the Torah to the people.[4] First, Moshe taught what he had received to his brother. Then, Moshe taught Aharon’s sons. Next came the elders, and finally the rest of the people. Each time, those who had first heard from Moshe remained behind to continue listening as Moshe spoke to the next group. Aharon, therefore, heard Moshe teach the lesson four times. His sons heard Moshe three times, etc.

This seems paradoxical. If anything, Aharon should have required fewer sessions with Moshe than the others. Surely, he could have grasped lesson had he heard from his brother only once. It is the others who perhaps needed to have the lesson repeated!

Chazal tell us about four chief levels of understanding Torah, known by the acronym PaRDeS, which stands for Peshat, Remez, Derush, and Sod. This is the key to understanding the gemara. Each one heard the level appropriate to him. When Moshe taught Aharon, he taught him the deep mysteries of Sod. Aharon’s sons were given the Derush material. Moshe taught Remez to the elders; the masses received Peshat. Each stayed to listen to Moshe as he lectured on the next levels of lesser complexity. Aharon received all four levels; his sons – three, etc.

Those who satiated themselves with the spirituality of the deeper levels of Torah did not need to be told to limit their involvement with material pleasures. They had little use for them; they did not pose a danger to their madregah. It was the rest of the people who needed to hear about restraint as a necessary ingredient of the pursuit of holiness. Thus, the commandment of “You shall be holy,” was specifically addressed to a gathering of the greater assembly. To them, but not to their leaders!


  1. Vayikra 19:2
  2. Vayikra Rabbah 24:5; cited by Rashi
  3. Vayikra 11:44
  4. Eruvin 54b