Table for Five: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Speak to the entire community of the children of Israel, and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” -Lev. 19:2
Zvi Dershowitz, Rabbi Emeritus, Sinai Temple
It can’t possibly be true – does Torah equate God and Israelites, saying both are the same by indicating “For I (God) am holy, therefore you shall be holy, kodesh?” Both are the same, kodesh! The word holy is used in various contexts; the contemporary phraseology for marriage is holy matrimony for example. The Torah meaning of the word is to set apart, to distinguish from others, to be unique. Thus, holy matrimony implies that the husband shall be unique – holy – unto his wife, and visa versa. Holy is not better, but rather set apart from other ideas and people. Thus, per the text, God, being holy, means that He is different from humanity.
The Kohen is holy is because his function is special. He is not necessarily better than other Israelites. Kohanim serve a unique function to their people and God; that’s what sets them apart as holy. We Jews are holy because of our unique beliefs and moral guidelines (monotheism, the State of Israel). The anti-Semitic diatribe accusing Jews of claiming to be better is based on the false assumption that holy means superior to others. When maintaining rules of kashrut, we emphasize that we are kodesh – no other group keeps kosher nor does it celebrate the variety of holidays, including Shabbat, as we do.
That’s what makes us holy – unique, different – without claiming superiority. “Speak to the entire community” means we must all strive to attain holiness – this lofty goal applies to every Jew.
Rabbi Ari Segal, Head of School, Shalhevet High School
I find myself more struck by what this verse does not say than what it does. “You shall be holy” is a powerful directive, but it’s also incredibly vague, with no hint as to how we can enact this designated holiness.
This is especially strange as the parsha has just concluded a detailed list of actions that would render us not holy. The opposite side of the coin, however, is blank.
This pattern emerges elsewhere too. The famous and detail-free phrase from Deuteronomy, “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue,” is presaged by detailed laws. So why do so many litanies of specific No’s, culminate in a quotable but nondescript Yes?
I think it’s because this Yes is vague on purpose. It’s not that it is free of detail, but rather it is full of opportunity.
It’s easy to view the detailed laws of the Torah as restricting our behavior to rote responses, but in fact the opposite is true. God gives us the specifics on what is “not ok” so we can have the powerful creative freedom to define and enact good. These restrictions are what allow our goodness, our holiness, to manifest in creative ways, just like a hose restricts the water within it, so that it can be unleashed powerfully and effectively.
The commandments before this verse provide structure and boundaries, a canvas for our actions that encourages us all to decide not only what our holiness is, but how we can display and use it to our best ability.
How will you put your own personal touch on being holy?
Dina Coopersmith, Women’s Trips Coordinator and Lecturer, reconnectiontrips.com
Holiness. Such an obscure concept. How should we be holy? This word connotes ashrams and gurus on mountaintops, meditation and ascetism. Judaism has so many physically oriented responsibilities, as well as demands that we eat good food and drink good wine, and enjoy them. Doesn’t sound holy to me!
And yet, Judaism expects us to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Our verse is in fact one of many exhortations in the Torah involving holiness.
When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were on the 49th level of tumah, ritual impurity, because they were steeped in Egyptian culture. It took them 49 days of “counting the omer” to reach a level of kedusha, holiness, where they could receive the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai.
The Midrash says that the Jewish people in Egypt were like a fetus in an animal’s womb, with no uniquely human identity, no ability to think for themselves. They were animalistic slaves, behaving as debased, instinctual creatures. This is the 49th level of tumah- the lowliest possible, the opposite of kedusha. What, then, is holiness?
When we identify with our soul, imbuing our physical actions with mindfulness, dignity and purpose, we engage in a uniquely human endeavor. As Jewish people, we have the unique mission to go beyond human tendencies and reach toward Godliness, by instilling our base actions such as eating, shopping, reading and even having intimate relations with meaning, thought and spiritual goals. The opposite of being animalistic is to be holy, to strive towards the Godly “for I am Holy.”
Lori Shapiro, Rabbi, Artistic Director, Open Temple
The God voice implores us with its cohortative beckoning, “You Shall Be Holy” towards an undefinable goal. What does kedoshim, holiness, mean, anyway?
In a time of quarantine, “The Holiness Code” feels a bit like “The Twilight Zone.” Rabbi Avraham Hen in Malchut HaYahadut explores the manifold definitions of holiness: concepts of purity, body cleanliness, avoidance of defilement to prepare for an important act, abstaining from permitted things, Kiddush HaShem (martyrdom), and isolating – all things that make pandemics so much fun.
The verse continues: I, God, Your God, am Holy. The parallelism in the verse is clear: We are called upon to strive for Godliness, with one important caveat: God is a singular Holiness and we are kedoshim in the plural. We only achieve holiness together.
There is something to these pandemic times that reveals our essence: Who am I when no one is watching? Similarly, the Holiness Code asks of us: Who do we want to become through this time? Whether or not we have the freedoms to walk on the beach, visit a park or go to a restaurant does not define our character. Our smallest actions define our character. And so – who do we want to be once we emerge from this time of quarantine?
Actions matter. May this time of separation be for a blessing to ruminate on our role in this Republic as we prepare for the day that we can again emerge into a collective Pluralism of Holiness.
Salvador Litvak, accidentaltalmudist.org
Two elements of this verse have drawn the attention of most Torah commentators: 1) God told Moses to assemble all the people, and 2) these people shall act like a holy people.
Because this command precedes revering one’s parents, keeping Shabbos, desisting from robbery, forgoing revenge and loving one’s fellow, the 19th century commentator Maharzav identifies these commands as the essential mitzvos of Torah.
Gur Aryeh defines holiness itself as separating from material desires and aspiring toward the spiritual. Alsich adds that the whole nation was assembled in order to emphasize that holiness is not just for Priests and Levites, but for everyone.
What drew my attention, however, is the little word ki, because. God is so infinitely beyond human beings that a causal connection between His holiness and ours makes no sense. It would be enough that we should holy because God said so. Why does He also point to His state of holiness as the reason for ours?
Perhaps it’s because we’re his reps. The world knows we’ve been given Torah, and with it a sacred mission. If we then behave badly, we reflect badly on our Master. So it’s not enough to obey the letter of the law. If we look religious and yet appear unholy, we can become what Ramban calls a degenerate with the permission of Torah. Rather, we must conduct ourselves like a nation of holy people who will attract others toward faith in the Eternal. We His emissaries need to be admirable people.
Our example thus counts even more than our teachings, and this principle applies to every Jew for all time.
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