The Sifri makes what seems to be an ambiguous statement in interpreting this pasuk. Hashem says Yachol kamoni, “Perhaps, you think that you can be holy like Me.” Therefore, the Torah adds, Ani Hashem, “I am Hashem; My kedushah, holiness, is greater than yours.” This statement begs elucidation. Can one conceive that man could even remotely aspire to a kedushah equivalent to that of Hashem? What, then, is the meaning of Yachol kamoni?
Horav Yosef Cohen, z.l., cites his father-in-law, Horav Tzvi Pesach Frank, z.l., who explains that this pasuk refers to a pasuk in the previous parsha, 16:16, where the Torah says that the Shechinah, Divine Presence, “dwells with them amid their contamination.” The Shechinah reposes in Klal Yisrael, despite their spiritual contamination. This is why the Mishkan provides atonement for Klal Yisrael’s sins, since the essence of the Shechinah’s holiness never leaves the Sanctuary. Rav Frank explains that perhaps the Jew might think Yachol kamoni: Just as Hashem resides among the spiritually defiled, so, too, can I remain among those who have serious spiritual shortcomings, who have contaminated their spiritual essence and distanced themselves from Judaism. If Hashem does it, why can I not do the same? Therefore, he is told, “Ani Hashem”: My kedushah transcends your kedushah. Only I can repose among the spiritually profaned.
Rav Cohen cites an incident that occurred concerning the Rebbe Reb Heshel, z.l. He once arrived in a city where two wealthy men resided, each of whom requested that the Rebbe stay with him. One was a great Torah scholar, but regrettably his erudition went to his head, rendering him very arrogant. The other was a fine person, but regrettably he was not very meticulous in his mitzvah observance. The Rebbe chose to stay with this man. When questioned regarding his choice, he explained that the sinner had the advantage of still retaining Hashem in his presence. Hashem says the Shechinah still reposes among the spiritually defiled. “If Hashem can stay with him – so could I,” said the Rebbe. “On the other hand, regarding haughtiness, Hashem says, ‘I and he cannot live together.’ If Hashem will not stay with him, how can I?”
Rav Cohen is careful to emphasize that this story is to be viewed purely from a homiletic perspective, since halachically – as mentioned before – only Hashem continues to stay with those who have strayed spiritually – man does not. Man must protect himself and reside only in a place where he is among those whose lifestyles are spiritually strong.