Parashat Kedoshim begins with famous command of “kedoshim tiheyu” – “you shall be sacred,” and then continues, “for I, the Lord your God, am sacred.” The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 24:9) explains this phrase as intended to dispel the possible misconception that we are bidden to be as sacred as He is. We might think that the command “kedoshim tiheyu” requires us to be as sacred as God Himself, and so God added, “for I…am sacred,” emphasizing that His sanctity will always exceed ours, and so we are not required to strive for His standard of sanctity.
Many writers noted the obvious question as to why anyone would have entertained such a notion, that the Torah demands that we be as sacred as God. Was there any doubt that God’s sanctity exceeds any level of sanctity that we could possibly aspire to?
Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, the Oheiv Yisrael, explains the Midrash’s comment by noting the Gemara’s teaching in Masekhet Berakhot (6a) that God wears tefillin. Whereas our tefillin contains parchment upon which is written verses that speak about God and our commitment to Him, God’s tefillin contain the verse, “And who is like Your nation, Israel, a singular nation on earth” (Divrei Hayamim I 17:21). The Rebbe of Apta explains that needless to say, God does not actually wear tefillin, but the Gemara speaks of God’s deep love and devotion to Am Yisrael. Just as we wear tefillin as a symbolic expression of our connection to God, how we wish to bind ourselves to Him and His will, similarly, God binds Himself, as it were, to His beloved nation.
The Rebbe of Apta suggests explaining the Midrash’s remark in a similar vein. One might have thought that we must strive for a level of “sanctity” – of devotion to God – that resembles His devotion to us. The misconception the Midrash seeks to dispel is that we are capable of committing ourselves to the Almighty to the same extent as He commits Himself to Am Yisrael. The Midrash teaches that this is impossible, because no human can be as devoted as God is devoted to His cherished nation. Limited as we are by our human constraints, we cannot possibly match His level of commitment to us.
According to the Oheiv Yisrael, then, the Midrash here seeks to teach us to recognize and appreciate the extent of God’s love for Am Yisrael, to recognize that His devotion to us exceeds any level of devotion that any human being is capable of achieving. We are to live with a deep sense of gratitude for, and trust in, God’s unbridled benevolence and kindness, acknowledging His deep love for His nation and His unconditional devotion to assisting us in overcoming whatever challenges we confront.