In Parshas Kedoshim the concept of holiness is mentioned three times:
“Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your G-d’” (Shemos 19:2).
After the Torah warns about the severe prohibition of worshipping idolatry the verse states, “You shall sanctify yourselves and you will be holy, for I am Hashem, your G-d” (20:7). And at the conclusion of the parsha, after the Torah states that one may not “render your souls abominable” by eating non-kosher birds and any crawling insect, it says, “You shall be holy for Me, for I, G-d, am holy; and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine” (20:26).
The Nesivos Sholom explains that these three verses correspond to the three chief detractions from holiness: immorality, idolatrous beliefs which enervate one’s faith, and partaking of forbidden foods. In regard to these three areas one must go beyond the actual prohibitions of the Torah. One must erect personal safeguards and stringencies to ensure that one does not fall prey to these egregious sins.
Conversely, there are three main sources of holiness from which one can elevate oneself: the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvos, the holidays and special times which are propitious for spiritual growth, and the overcoming of physical desires and inclinations. The more a person transcends his desires for physicality and the pleasures of life the more control he maintains over his evil inclination. These three areas represent the cadre of holiness in the life of a Jew.
The centrality of the commandment of being holy is evident. Becoming a holy, G-dly person is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of a Jew. Therefore, it is difficult to comprehend why this injunction seems to fall by the wayside even amongst scrupulously observant Jews.
The Nesivos Sholom explained this enigma by citing a Medrash (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu 16:9) that relates a parable about a king who wanted to determine the extent of the allegiance his many servants and sons had to him. He wanted to ascertain who truly loved and feared him and accepted his monarchy with reverence. In order to do so, the king ordered an architect to construct a palace with an eccentric entranceway. To enter the palace one had to pass through a narrow room, which led into an even narrower room, which led to a third even narrower room. A person would literally have to squeeze his body, slowly pulling and pushing himself through the little room, limb by limb. Beyond the small room was the majestic and opulent throne of the king in a vast beautiful royal chamber.
When the palace was completed, the king summoned his servants and sons. He sat on his throne and waited. He watched as each individual approached walked through the increasingly narrower rooms. He watched as some plunged on into the increasingly narrow constraints, while others just walked away. Only those who were willing to suffer the pain of the struggle were his true servants and loyalists.
The Rebbe explained that the narrow rooms symbolize the obligation of a Jew to transform himself into a receptacle of holiness. The responsibility of becoming a holy person is arduous. It encompasses every aspect of a person – body, soul, thoughts, emotions, desires, and even the things he yearns for. Only a person who truly loves his King and wants to be in His embrace would accept on himself such a Herculean undertaking.
It is for this reason that the obligation to be holy is not counted among the 613 mitzvos. Prior to giving the Torah at Sinai, G-d declared to Klal Yisroel, “You shall be for Me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation” (Shemos 19:6). Those words were not stated as an obligatory commandment, but rather as a revelation of G-d’s will. G-d was expressing His newfound expectation that the nation receiving the Torah strive for holiness and devoutness.