Torah Reading for the Week of April 20-26, 2014
Leviticus’ Holiness Code
By Rabbi Michael Menitoff, Dean of the AJRCA Rabbinical School
If you look at the words at the very beginning of the portion, it is not until the fourteenth that you find the name of the parsha, Kedoshim. What a word and what a name! It means “holy things” or “holy,” depending on whether you translate it as a noun or adjective.
In a non-leap year (different from the current one) our portion is coupled with its predecessor, Aharei Mot. I find the lesson of Kedoshim so profound that I feel good when I am able to concentrate exclusively on it. Some might better appreciate the edification of Kedoshim when joined with the more sobering reflections of Acharei Mot, which reminds us of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. However, I prefer plunging into the challenges of Kedoshim from the get-go.
The portion encompasses a proliferation of ways which help make us separate, distinct, extraordinary, indeed holy. When we assiduously live lives of holiness, we exemplify the most sublime qualities within ourselves. At our best, it is not just that our minds our filled with thoughts of holiness. As well, our hearts and hands must wrap themselves around deeds of loving kindness and outreach to our fellow human beings.
In Kedoshim, we are instructed to comport ourselves according to the specifics of ceremonial law, on the one hand, and interpersonal legislation, on the other. Kedoshim sees the demarcation that many make between “religious” (meaning ritual) and moral law to be artificial and arbitrary. The laws are inextricably bound up one to the other. Really, through the observance of ritual, one can be elevated in the interpersonal domain. By carrying out the laws of Shabbat, one hopefully is taking a time-out to assess familial behavior, workplace comportment, and how one is dealing with friends and colleagues elsewhere.
Many of the rituals have, embedded within themselves, broader human aspirations. When our Biblical ancestors were commanded to consume an offering within a specific time frame, the implicit message was to invite a less fortunate, hungry person to partake. Similarly, part of the motivation for restrictions on harvesting left-over grain, or gathering grapes which have fallen onto the ground in the vineyard, is to make them available to those in need. Also, this is intended to enhance the farmers’ awareness of the requirement of giving special consideration to the poor and the stranger in all areas of their lives.
The initial call for holiness Kedoshim Tihiyu is in the plural, rather than the singular, Kadosh Tihiye. Perhaps Kedoshim is purposely teaching that ultimate holiness can be attained only within a community of fellow believers and do-ers. While individual acts of “Kedusha” (holiness) are a necessary component of the fulfillment of the mitzvot of the parsha, maybe what we are being told is that they are insufficient. One cannot live a complete life of Kedusha without being part of a like-minded aggregate of others who play important roles in our lives.
Also, the text might be hinting that, unless there is a holy community, it may be harder for individuals to be motivated to perform worthy acts. The statement in Ethics of the Fathers, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah (“One good deed will lead to another; one transgression will bring on another”) speaks not simply to one’s own habituation to good or bad deeds. It also addresses the reciprocal encouragement to observance — or lack thereof — with those around us. These influences can, in the best case scenario, encourage our performance of good deeds.
At its pinnacle, the members of a holy community aspire to live lives of Kedusha by seeking to imitate and emulate G-d. We are commanded, You shall be holy. But the saifa (the latter part of the verse) gives us a reason and motivation, For I, the Lord your G-d, am holy. This refers to our striving to embody in our own lives the qualities that we ascribe to G-d. Just as G-d is merciful, so too are we to strive to show mercy, for we are made in his image. Just as G-d is said to have visited Abraham during the period of His recuperation, so too are we, his children, to perform to perform the mitzvah or bikkur cholim, the visitation of the sick, when someone is ill. In so doing we bring ourselves, and simultaneously those to whom we reach out, closer to the presence of God and the abundant potential with which He has blessed us.