According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible.1- What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is higher than yours.” ועל פי זה לכאורה דברי המדרש אינם מובנים, איך שייך בענין פרישות להתדמות להקב״ה שעל זה השמיענו הכתוב שלא כן רצונו ית׳, שהרי אומר “יכול כמוני? תלמוד לאמר ‘כי קדוש אני’, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”,
Rav Shimon’s defense of the notion that holiness is a stance of action, in light of a medrash in the Sifra which, as the Ramban puts it, says that “be holy” entails “separation from things that are permitted to you” opens with two questions that show the medrash and Ramban cannot be taken at face value.
First, the concept of separation has nothing to do with the Almighty.
Speaking from a theological perspective for a moment, if Hashem separated Himself from something, would that thing continue to exist? For that matter, would the time itself in which He is supposedly separate from it exist either?
As we saw, the issue of commitment is inherently different when it comes to people as when it comes to Hashem yisbarakh. Hashem is One. He has One Will, One Goal, and thus one Purpose that He is thus fully committed to.
Not only doesn’t Hashem have other side-interests, He does not even separate from those things people do that are at odds with His goal. In Tomer Devorah ch. 1, Rav Moshe Cordevero explains the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy as described in Mikhah 7:17-20. On the first middah, “מי א-ל כמוך — Who is a G-d like You”, he writes (tr unknown):
This refers to the Holy One, Blessed is He, as a patient King Who bears insult in a manner that is above human understanding. For behold, without doubt, there is nothing hidden from His providence. Furthermore, there is no moment when man is not nourished and does not exist by virtue of the divine power which flows down upon him. It follows that no man ever sins against God without the divine affluence pouring into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. But the Holy One, Blessed is He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffer it. Nor must you say that He cannot withhold that good, God forfend, for it lies in His power in the moment it takes to say the word ‘moment’ to wither the sinner’s hand or foot, as he did to Jeroboam (Melachim I 8:4). And yet though it lies in His power to arrest divine flow – and He might have said: ‘If you sin against Me do so under your own power, not with Mine’ – He does not, on this account, withold His goodness from man, bearing the insult, pouring out His power and bestowing of His goodness. This is to be insulted and bear the insult, beyond words…. מורה על היות הקב”ה מלך נעלב, סובל עלבון מה שלא יכילהו רעיון. הרי אין דבר נסתר מהשגחתו בלי ספק, ועוד אין רגע שלא יהיה האדם נזון ומתקיים מכח עליון השופע עליו, והרי תמצא שמעולם לא חטא אדם נגדו שלא יהיה הוא באותו הרגע ממש שופע שפע קיומו ותנועת אבריו, עם היות שהאדם חוטא בכח ההוא לא מנעו ממנו כלל אלא סובל הקב”ה עלבון כזה להיות משפיע בו כח תנועות אבריו, והוא מוציא אותו כח באותו רגע בחטא ועון ומכעיס והקב”ה סובל. ולא תאמר שאינו יכול למנוע ממנו הטוב ההוא ח”ו שהרי בכחו ברגע כמימרא ליבש ידיו ורגליו כעין שעשה לירבעם, ועכ”ז שהכח בידו להחזיר הכח הנשפע ההוא והיה לו לומר כיון שאתה חוטא נגדי תחטא בשלך לא בשלי, לא מפני זה מנע טובו מן האדם אלא סבל עלבון, והשפיע הכח והטיב לאדם טובו. הרי זה עלבון וסבלנות מה שלא יסופר…
Divine Compassion includes giving us the free will to use the very existence and power Hashem bestows upon us in rebellion against him, and yet Hashem continues to it grant us. There truly is no concept of separation — not even from our ulterior aims — with regard to Hashem.
In contrast, within the human condition, a conflict of motivations is not only possible, but a constant. Until Bereishis 1:4, “וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱ-לֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ — and G-d separated between the light and the darkness”, Chazal say that until then “אור וחשך משתמשין בערבוביא — light and darkness were used in a mixture” (c.f. Rashi ad loc.) Humanity then violates this separation, when Chavah and Adam ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night — light and darkness overlap. The fruit was of the “עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע — tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Bereishis 2:9) Not knowledge of good and of evil, but thought that was good-and-evil, mixed. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.
Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”
His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?
The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.
Irbuvia. A constant mixture of emotions. No good deed lacks some selfish side-motivation, no matter how small. Which is why many shuls require appeals to publicly announce donations in order to raise enough money to operate. The question is how to separate out the holy and the ideal among our motives rather than be moved by a mixture of good and evil.
So, a medrash addressing the words in the Torah, “be holy for I am Holy” can’t be saying that holiness itself is defined by separation. That explanation fails on the second clause — Hashem needs no such separation, and never does indeed separate. Rather, Rav Shimon will explain, it is giving separation as the means by which implement the mitzvah.