Parshat Kedoshim

Torah Reading for Week of May 5-11, 2019

“Sabbatical Freedom and Holiness”

By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.


Kedoshim comprises two short chapters, just past the middle of the Torah, the 19th and 20th chapters of its middle book Vayikra (Leviticus) – chapters that are fundamental to the understanding of Jewish life.

While much of Vayikra has dealt with the rites and sacrifices of the priests, now God tells Moshe to assemble the entire congregation to hear these words: Be holy. And it puts the responsibility squarely on us: as I, God, am holy, “make yourselves holy.”

Earlier, amid signs and wonders, we were brought out from slavery to become freely choosing human beings. Amid more signs, we heard words from the mountain and were asked to assent to a relationship to the One God and to a moral commitment spelled out in ten commands.

The ultimate intent was also presented to us at that time: “You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

For a while, it looked as if that wasn’t going to be the case. With the establishment of a priesthood with a tribal identity, it appeared that Judaism was going the way of other ancient religions which, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, existed essentially to defend hierarchy on earth and in the heavens. Earlier in our tradition, a radical doctrine had been introduced, namely that all human beings are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. All those former slaves had the potential to be priests. Was that promise to be forgotten?

No. Although the golden calf incident and the building of the Mishkan had required the services of a priestly class, it is from the priestly part of the Torah itself that the declaration comes: you shall all be holy!

In other words, although there may be organizational and ritual specialization, the priests do not control the people’s access to God. Nor are they the only ones on whom spiritual obligations are placed. Everyone has responsibilities. Rabbi Sacks calls it the “democratization of holiness.”

The obligations listed in Parshat Kedoshim run the gamut from the etiquette of sacrifice to cross-breeding of animals, from the down-to-earth requirement of honest weights and measures to the exalted level of not allowing hatred in your heart. I will suggest that this comprehensive approach to holiness revolves around three things.

God starts with two commands. The first is: Revere your parents. In case you thought holiness might mean an otherworldly spiritual path, along the lines of “leave your mother and father to follow me,” the Torah says that’s not the case. Family, and especially those who brought you into the world, must be part of your world of holiness. Moreover, revering and honoring parents is how we learn reverence for others, reverence for all those on whom we depend and from whom we learn – which turns out in the long run to be everyone.

The second is: Keep My Sabbaths. In the plural? Yes. Besides the weekly day of rest from work, which was part of the gift of leaving Egypt, there is the sabbatical year of freeing slaves and releasing the produce of the land to be available to all. And there is the fiftieth year of yovel (jubilee) when all land returns to its original owners. These Shabbatot imply and amplify dignity and freedom. Further, the idea of Shabbat as a taste of freedom should infuse all our economic and social relationships, so that a judge does not favor either the rich or the poor. No wonder then that the parsha also mentions not only leaving the corners of the field for the poor, but also instructs us not to rob, nor oppress, nor keep a worker’s wages overnight. Sabbatical freedom is not doing what you want, but experiencing the dignity of being made in the image of God, and recognizing that everyone else is too.

The principle of dignity runs deep and wide. “Don’t curse a deaf person” and “don’t put a stumbling block before the blind” are metaphors for a profound ethic: Do not take advantage of someone else’s weakness. Don’t lie, tell tales, hold a grudge, take revenge, or allow hatred in your heart – in other words, don’t allow yourself to invent your own self-righteous reality to justify lording it over others. Don’t stand aside when blood is being shed – you can’t pretend you don’t know what’s happening.

And all this culminates to the third outstanding principle in this parsha: Love your neighbor as yourself; love the stranger in your land as yourself.

These principles in turn are to find expression in the most intimate of relations, and in the way we treat our neighbors in nature, the animals and plants that live among us.

Reverence. . . . Sabbatical freedom and dignity. . . . Loving the other as yourself. The instructions are clear: Make yourselves holy with these ideas and practices, day in, day out.