Be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Exodus (19:6)


Leviticus 19 is one of those chapters that totally changes our perspective on how to live our lives. Moses gathers the entire nation together, [1] and he transmits G-d’s instruction: “Be holy, because I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” [2]

Before the Jews could receive the Torah at Sinai, they made a covenant with G-d. G-d says to the Jews, “Be a kingdom of priests (mamlechet kohanim) and a holy nation (goy kadosh).” [3] This, then, is who we are — or try to be. We are not trying to be the most brilliant, get the most Nobel prizes, or be the wealthiest. To be a Jew is to try to be holy. 

The command to be holy is not counted as one of the 613 commandments. This is because it is not limited to one act. [4] It is a facet of all of the other commandments. But it goes further. It spreads its canopy over all of Judaism. The potential for holiness and sanctity are inseparably

woven into the fabric of ordinary, human existence. [5] To be holy is an attitude — an approach to life. It should permeate our very being. [6]

With this mitzvah, the scope of our responsibility to ourselves and to the world is dramatically widened. We are exhorted to discover holiness where none is obvious and where we are not clearly directed by halachah. We have to regard nothing as trivial — nothing as incapable

of being infused with holiness. [7] The Jew sees everything as having “sanctity potential” — every smile, every thought, every morsel of food, every gesture honoring our fellow man.

Following the command to be holy, the Torah proceeds to give us specific examples: We are enjoined to keep the Shabbat [8] and to revere G-d’s sanctuary. [9] We are ordered to remain strictly monotheistic and not to abuse G-d’s name. [10] This makes sense. We cannot be holy if we don’t relate properly to our G-d.

But the rest of the list is full of surprises. The laws of holiness span the full gamut regulating our relationships with our fellow man, with the environment, and with ourselves.

Continue reading What Does it Mean to be Holy?


[1] Leviticus 19:1.

[2] Ibid., v. 2.

[3] Exodus 19:6.

[4] This is in line with the fourth principle in the introduction of Maimonides to his Book of Commandments — that a command that has no specific expression but rather multiple expressions is not counted as one of the 613 commandments.

[5] Ramban, Leviticus 12:2. 

[6] Netivot Shalom, Leviticus, p. 87.

[7] Ohr Gedalyahu, Leviticus, p. 51b.

[8] Leviticus 19:3, 30.

[9] Ibid., v. 30.

[10] Ibid., v. 4, 12, 26.

Read the previous essay, Inner vs. Outer Directedness.  

Purchase a copy of The Human Challenge.

Olami Resources is happy to present a series of free installments featuring Rabbi Avraham Edelstein’s important new book, The Human Challenge. This week’s essay is from Section Two – Holiness

Rabbi Avraham Edelstein serves as the Education Director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and a senior advisor to Olami. Many of Rabbi Edelstein’s foundational publications addressing the world of Kiruv appear on

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