"The priest must be holy to his God. You must keep him holy, for he presents the offering to your God... He must be holy, for I am God - I am holy and I am making you holy" (Lev. 21).
God Has Sanctified The Priests Above All Men
The Holy One ordained special laws which effect the lives of the priests. The fundamental understanding behind these principles is that the status of the priest is different than that of other men. Their lot is one of dedication, of separation - for they are the servants of the Lord, and the custodians of His service. "... For he presents the offering to your God... "
Because of this, "... he must be holy, for I am God - I am holy and I am making you holy." The Creator has sanctified these men above the rest for all time, and drawn them to Himself through unique commandments.
These laws are recorded in the book of Leviticus, and by way of an introduction, let us examine the verse quoted above. The priests are expected and commanded to keep holy... but what is meant by "holiness?" What is the Bible's intention?
"He must be holy, for I, God, am holy." How are we to understand this state of holiness? How can we best explain such a concept? It seems intangible at best - for in the context of this verse, it seems that the priest is called upon to be holy in the same sense that God Himself is holy.
It would surely be instructive at this point for us to attempt a definition for the word "holy." For we can see that the Bible uses this word quite emphatically in the context of the priests: they are actually mandated to be holy, to lead holy lives, because God is holy. But how can a person be holy like God?
Many people seem to equate the concept of holiness with spirituality in general; anything ethereal or mystical is presumed to be holy. According to this mentality, one supposes that holiness is a matter of secret knowledge, or simply a question of allegiance to any proscribed ritual claimed by its adherents to bring the devotee closer to fulfillment.
To Be Spiritual Does Not Automatically Imply Holiness
This is a serious misconception, one which is completely out of tune with the Biblical idea of holiness as exemplified by the "holiness" which is expected and required of Aaron's descendants. For holy and spiritual are not the same things and they are certainly not equal.
Consulting Webster's Dictionary, we find that the word "spiritual" is derived from the Latin spiritualis, "of breathing; of wind; relating to or consisting of spirit." Thus: "INCORPOREAL," (fortunately, we are also given "of or relating to sacred matters,") and since the primary meaning of this word seems to be that which is non-physical, we end with "of or relating to ghosts or similar supernatural beings(!)"
Thus many people, disciplines, philosophies and the like may be considered spiritual in nature, they may concern themselves with the esoteric, they may even occupy themselves with the service of God - but this does not necessarily imply that they are holy in any way.
Forbidden Spiritual Pursuits
In fact, some spiritual paths can most definitely be the absolute epitome of unholiness:
The Bible is clear in its prohibition of spiritualism which has not been authorized by God. "Do not act on the basis of omens... do not act on the basis of auspicious times" (Lev. 19:26), we are warned. These forbidden practices include one who acts on the basis of a superstitious omen, and those who seek out auspicious times through astrology.
When the Children of Israel were preparing to end their desert wanderings and enter into the Promised Land, they were specifically warned by God to uproot the perverted spiritual practices of the former inhabitants from the land, and to be particularly cautious not to be tempted to experiment with mystical occult practices. "When the Lord your God excises the nations to which you are coming, and drives them away before you, you shall dispossess them and live in their land. Be very careful not to fall into a trap by following after them, after they have been wiped out from before you. Do not try to find out about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations worship their gods? I would also like to try this.' Do not worship the Lord your God with such practices. In worshipping their gods, these nations committed all manner of perversions hated by the Lord... " (Deut. 12:29 - 31).
Reaching levels of inspiration and revelation that are not rooted in holiness, as personified by the wicked heathen prophet Balaam, King Balak, and the elders of Moab and Midian, are all equally reprehensible (these practiced various forms of divination and occult arts in order to bring about prophetic revelation. See Numbers 22).
So, while other nations may have their own routes to connect with the "Divine," or their own conception thereof; or, perhaps they merely delude themselves and others into thinking that they are serving God, and the side of holiness - clearly, the Torah's prohibitions instruct Israel that these other ways are not for her. There may be other paths of spirituality, but they are not for Israel; she is to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6).
But we have not yet come any closer to an understanding of the priests' exhortation to live holy lives "because God is holy;" neither have we come any closer to a grasp on how an individual can be holy like God. If God is incorporeal, if God is spirit, is a man therefore commanded to be spirit? Spirituality is clearly a separate concept, and one that is not necessarily pure, at that.
Holiness Means Separation
By contrast to the concept of "spiritual" - which seems to be rather unstable for our liking, since it can actually apply to things quite far from all which we have considered sacred - we find that the primary definition of "holy" is "set apart to the service of God."
God Himself is called holy because He is completely separate; unique and unequaled in all of His creation. Nothing can be compared to Him because He is peerless; He is the Creator of the universe and all existence, and absolutely different from anything else that exists.
It is in this light that Israel is collectively called upon to be a "holy nation" - that is, a nation set apart from all others, completely different from any other, whose Divinely-mandated lifestyle serves as living proof that an entire nation can walk with God in its midst... "it is a nation dwelling alone in peace; not counting itself among other nations" (Numbers 23:9).
This separation is the true Biblical view of holiness. This is why the opposite of something holy is said to be mundane or profane; ordinary. To be holy is to be removed from the realm of the ordinary. Israel lives separately, according to the Torah's commandments, precisely because God is separate... for the highest form of religious experience is to reflect, to imitate the Divine. Man must strive to be a reflection of his Creator.
So too, the priests in the Holy Temple "must be holy for I, God, am holy." If Jewish life is to be holy, then the priests must take care to be especially holy. They have been distinctively sanctified by the Creator Himself for all time and singled out for a life dedicated to Him. The vehicle that accomplishes this sanctification is the commandments, which obligate them to their Creator. These commandments reflect their unique status.