Rabbi Bernard Fox


“Speak to the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I Hashem you G-d is holy”.  (VaYikra 19:2)

Hashem commands Moshe to address Bnai Yisrael.  Moshe is to command the people to conduct their affairs in holiness.  He is to relate this responsibility to the holiness of the Almighty.


The exact meaning of the message that Moshe was to deliver is not clear.  What is Moshe requiring of the people?  They are already commanded to observe the mitzvot.  Certainly holiness emerges from obedience to the commandments!  What additional requirement is Moshe establishing?


There is a second difficulty in understanding this pasuk.  Hashem is holy.  But what is the meaning of this assertion?  It would seem that the term holiness, used in reference to the Almighty, is related to His unfathomable essence.  We do not share the Creator’s unique nature.  It would seem that the holiness of a human must be different from His holiness.  Yet, somehow the pasuk relates human holiness to the sanctity of Hashem.  What is the connection?


Sforno explains that the pasuk does not create a new command.  Instead, the pasuk is providing a reason for the mitzvot.  Observance of the Torah endows a person with sanctity.  Sforno further explains that through achieving personal sanctity we imitate the Almighty.  This is expressed in the pasuk.  We are to be holy because Hashem is holy.  Through observance of the Torah, we imitate the holiness of Hashem.[1]


These comments answer one of our questions.  Moshe is not establishing a new requirement.  He is explaining one of the purposes of Torah observance.  Observance endows us with sanctity.  However, the second problem remains.  How is human holiness compared to the sanctity of the Almighty?


In order to fully understand Sforno’s comments, we must analyze the meaning of imitating the Almighty.  Maimonides discusses this issue in his Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot.  He explains that a person should conduct oneself with moderation.  A person should not anger easily.  Neither should we be insensitive to personal abuse.  A person should not be a glutton.  It is also inappropriate to deprive ourselves of needed food and nutrition.  One should choose the path of moderation, between the extremes.  Maimonides explains that the moderate life-style is the most healthy.[2]


Maimonides then explains that in following the path of moderation a person imitates the Almighty.  Hashem is kind.  We too must be kind.  Hashem is merciful.  We must be merciful.  The moderate individual possesses these behaviors and attitudes.  This person imitates Hashem.[3]


Maimonides is providing two reasons for pursuing the path of moderation.  First, he explains that this is the healthiest life-style.  Second, he explains that through moderation we imitate the behavior of Hashem.


There is a profound message in Maimonides’ analysis.  How can we measure the degree of a person’s spiritual perfection?  This is not a simple question to answer.  When dealing with material objects, it is far easier to measure perfection.  Consider the example of a pen.  In order to measure the degree of perfection of a specific pen, we merely need to compare it to the ideal.  A pen is a writing instrument.  The ideal pen will be one which best accomplishes this objective.  The specific pen can be evaluated relative to this ideal.  The same analysis can be applied to all material objects.


However, in evaluating spiritual perfection this analysis fails.  We must define the spiritual ideal.  This step is essential if we are to evaluate the specific person.  What is the spiritual ideal?  Maimonides provides a method for defining the spiritual ideal.  The ideal is defined by the behavior of the Almighty.  He is the ultimate model of spiritual perfection.  We can now measure the degree of our own perfection.  We approach spiritual perfection to the extent that we imitate Hashem.


Now the message of Sforno can be fully understood.  The term holiness is used to describe spiritual excellence.  This excellence is defined by the behaviors of the Almighty.  Through following the laws of the Torah, we imitate Hashem.  In this manner we achieve holiness.  We approach the spiritual ideal defined by the Almighty’s behavior.





“Every person should fear his mother and father and keep my Shabbat.  I am Hashem your G-d.”  (VaYikra 19:3)

The Torah commands us to treat our parents with respect and awe.  Parents especially appreciate this commandment.  It creates a family structure and fosters a social order.  Our sages observed that these mitzvot also promote other less obvious values.  One of these values is appreciation of the Almighty.  We honor and fear our parents because we appreciate the benefits that they bestow upon us.  Our very life is made possible through our parents.  However, we owe an even greater debt of appreciation to Hashem.  Through our behaviors and attitudes towards our parents, we train ourselves to appreciate others and not take their benevolence for granted.  Hopefully, this attitude will be applied to our relationship with the Almighty.[4]


Gershonides notes another important outcome of these commandments.  In order to understand his observation, an introduction is required.


In Perkei Avot, our Sages exhort us to make for ourselves a Rav or teacher.[5]  On the simplest level, the Sages are cautioning the student against attempting to master the Torah without the assistance of a teacher.  The teacher provides the student with essential guidance.[6]  Why is this guidance so important?  The answer requires that we understand the basic nature of Torah scholarship.  Our Sages explain that Torah scholarship is not achieved through merely memorizing facts and developing a fluency and mastery with these facts.  Instead, the Torah scholar must understand the underlying conceptual basis for the facts.[7]  Such an understanding cannot be acquired through reading a list of texts.  Even if a person commits the entire Talmud to memory, this person cannot be regarded as a scholar.  Torah scholarship requires understanding, synthesis, and insight – not mere memorization.


Understanding is difficult to achieve.  It must be developed slowly and sequentially.  The student builds new concepts upon prior conclusions.  As the student’s understanding develops and expands, additional areas of the Torah become comprehensible.  Furthermore, with intense study the student's mind and modes of thinking expand and are refined.  The student slowly develops into a novice scholar.  Eventually, the patient novice can achieve erudition.  However, this development requires guidance.  Without the invaluable guidance of the teacher, the student does not know where to begin.  The student may settle for superficiality.  Even worse, the student may delve into issues beyond one’s grasp.  The result is that a faulty foundation is created.  Any structure is limited by the integrity of its foundation.  If the student lacks a sound foundation, all further attempts to understand the Torah will be undermined.


The guidance of the Rav allows the student to develop systematically.  The teacher understands the Torah.  The Rav guides the student in a systematic program and progression.  The teacher can tell the student where to begin one’s studies.  The Rav can evaluate the progress of the student and determine when the student is ready to develop to the next stage.  With this guidance, the student can become a true scholar.


However, there is another message in this lesson from Perkei Avot.  The commentaries note that the Sages did not say that the student should acquire or secure the assistance of a Rav.  They said that a person should make for oneself a Rav.  This is an odd expression.  What is meant by the phrase “make a Rav”?


Maimonides and others comment that the Sages are alluding to specific issue.  It is not always possible to find a Rav.  The inexperienced student and even the novice scholar can expect to find a more advanced scholar to serve as a guide.  However, what is the recourse available to the more advanced student?  This more advanced student may not find a suitable teacher to provide guidance and direction.  What course should this person choose?


Maimonides explains that the phrase “make a Rav” refers to this situation.  Sometimes a more advanced student may not be able to secure a guide.  There is no existing suitable Rav for this person to pursue.  This student must “make a Rav”.  The Rav will not be the ideal guide.  Nonetheless, this novice scholar must appoint someone as Rav.  Why is this necessary?


Maimonides explains that knowledge and understanding are developed through the exchange of ideas.  The student must expose his or her conclusions to critical analysis and review.  This free exchange of ideas is crucial to achieving an objective and refined understanding of the Torah.[8]


Gershonides extends the insight of Perkei Avot to the commandments regarding our parents.  Gershonides explains that just as the Torah scholar requires a guide, so does the child.  Every young person faces innumerable challenges and obstacles in the process of personal development.  The parent shields the child from the challenges that are beyond the capacity of the youngster.  The parent exposes the child to appropriate challenges and responsibilities.  The parent provides guidance and counsel.  At the very least, the parent provides an invaluable review of the child’s conclusions and decisions.  The parent, in the personal development of the child, performs all of the tasks that the Rav performs in facilitating the intellectual development of the scholar. 


These commandments are designed to foster and encourage this mentor relationship.  A child who respects his or her parents and holds them in awe is more likely to accept these parents as guides.


Some children will challenge this analysis.  Children sometimes question the qualifications of their parents to provide guidance.  After all, the student chooses a mentor based on the teacher’s qualifications.  We do not choose our parents.  It is easy to become a parent.  It is far more difficult to provide effective guidance. 


Gershonides acknowledges this issue.  However, he points out that parents generally have a unique and important qualification to serve as mentors for their children.  Parents are instinctively bound to their children.  They feel a selfless love for their offspring.  A parent will often even place the welfare of the child before his or her personal interests.  The child cannot find any other mentor that has as deep a commitment and interest in the child’s interests.  So, although parents – like everyone – make mistakes, they tend to be very dedicated and selfless guides.  This is a qualification that certainly recommends the parent for the position of mentor.  It should also be noted that there is a benefit in “making a teacher."  As we have explained, every person gains from exposing conclusions and perceptions to a second opinion.  This is true even if an equal provides the second opinion.  Some children surpass the accomplishments of their parents.  They achieve greater wealth and success.  They are more educated than their parents are and even worldlier.  However, their parents are an invaluable asset.  They can provide honest feedback and review.[9]


[1] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 19:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot 1:1-4.

[3]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot  1:5-6.

[4]   Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 33.

[5]   Mesechet Avot 1:6.

[6]   Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri, Bait HaBechirah, Mesechet Avot 1:6.

[7]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 21:1.

[8]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Avot 1:6.

[9]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), p 292.