Parashat Kedoshim begins with the famous command, “Kedoshim tiheyu” – “You shall be sacred” (19:2), which is followed by the pronouncement, “for I, the Lord your God, am sacred.”
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 24:9) comments that this addition – “for I…am sacred” – is necessary to preclude the mistaken notion that the command to “be sacred” means that we must aspire to be sacred “kamoni” – “like Me,” like the Almighty Himself. God followed this command by emphasizing, “I, the Lord your God, am sacred” – that His sanctity is far beyond anything we could possibly aspire to, and thus the requirement of “kedoshim tiheyu” must not be misunderstood to mean that we are to strive to be sacred like God. Many writers raised the question of why we might have mistakenly assumed that the command of “kedoshim tiheyu” would demand endeavoring to be sacred like God.
Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, in Ma’or Va’shemesh, suggests that the Midrash here perhaps refers to withdrawal, living separate and apart from other people like the Almighty. As many have noted, the term kadosh (“sacred’) often connotes separation. Rashi, commenting to this verse, explains that the command “kedoshim tiheyu” refers to abstention from forbidden sexual relationships, whereas the Ramban famously interprets “kedoshim tiheyu” as a more general command requiring moderation in our indulgence in physical enjoyment. Either way, “kedoshim tiheyu” requires a certain degree of withdrawal to facilitate spiritual focus. As such, the Ma’or Va-shemesh writes, one might have concluded that this command similarly requires withdrawal from people, that one isolate himself so as to avoid the distractions and lures that socialization could present. Just as God is, by definition, separate and withdrawn from the world, one might have concluded that people, too, must isolate themselves as part of the effort to achieve sanctity. The Midrash therefore instructs that this is not the case. Unlike God, we must be engaged with other people in order to develop kedusha. We are to aspire to holiness not by isolating ourselves from people, but to the contrary, by interacting with and learning from them. Appropriate social interaction does not compromise our kedusha, but enhances it.
The Ma’or Va-shemesh adds that this is why Rashi emphasizes in his opening remarks to this verse that the series of commands contained in this section were presented “be-hak’hel” – at an assembly of the entire nation. God wanted Moshe to emphasize to the people that the ideal of “kedoshim tiheyu” is achieved not in solitude, by isolating oneself, but rather specifically “be-hak’hel,” by joining together with other people, working with them, assisting them, receiving assistance from them, influencing them and being influenced by them.