Leviticus 19:1 to 20:27
And God said to the Israelites: “You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God, am holy.”
The Hebrew word for “holy” is “kadosh” whose root is” separate.” This week’s text provides the Israelites with commandments explaining how to separate from the surrounding peoples and live a life following the ways of the Eternal.
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Lev. 19:1-2)
So the all the people of Israel are to be holy. The text states that command applies to “the whole community,” not just the leaders, priests, or a special class of people.… in the next few words we are told that the Eternal is holy.
This short statement has deep meaning … We, as part of the Israelite community, are commanded to be holy ….. because our God is holy. The first thought I have is … what is it meant to be “holy?”
“Holy” is the English translation of the Hebrew work Kadosh. The root of the word is “separate.” A separation between what is God-like and what is secular…. Shabbat versus the other days of the week… Kosher foods versus foods that are deemed ritually unclean… Ethical treatment of those near us versus actions taken just for personal benefit.
Then, we are commanded to be “holy” like the Eternal. How is the Eternal “holy?” The most complete description of the qualities of God is stated in Exodus 34:6-7 as the Eternal responds to the request of Moses to show himself. “The Eternal! The Eternal! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin – yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
The rest of this week’s parsha provides a lengthy listing of laws that will create a “holy” community. Many of these laws restate the concepts of the Ten Commandments. Gunther Plaut states that “the prime emphasis is ethical. And the moral laws of this chapter are not mere injunctions of conformity. They call for just, humane, and sensitive treatment of others. The aged, the handicapped, and the poor are to receive consideration and courtesy. The laborers are to be promptly paid. The stranger is to be accorded the same love we give our fellow citizens. The law is concerned not only with overt behavior, but also with motive, vengefulness and the bearing of grudges are condemned.”
“… The ethical injunctions of chapter 19 are interspersed with ritual commandments. Some of these are directed against pagan and superstitious practices deemed incompatible with biblical religion. The intent of others is not so plain. In the Torah’s view, these ceremonial rulings are divine ordinances with the same authority as the ethical commandments. Traditional Judaism regarded them as ‘royal decrees,” to be observed whether or not we comprehend them (i.e., Dietary laws).”
“Jewish modernists cannot agree with this. But we can recognize that worship and ceremony, undertaken thoughtfully and reverently, can elevate personal and family life. Though we may reject older views as to the origin and authority of ritual, we may still benefit from the practice of ritual. In holy living, the ethical factor is primary, but it is not the only one. In combining moral and ceremonial commandments, the authors of the Holiness Code displayed sound understanding.” (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah, a Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed., p. 808)
In total, the mitzvot presented can be viewed as a framework for a holy life that will produce the “holy” community envisioned by Torah. The mitzvot in some cases have become adopted as law in our own communities … You shall not steal (Lev. 19:11)… You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity (in business dealings) (Lev. 19:35). Other laws relate to personal ethical decisions … You shall each revere your mother and your father (Lev. 19:3) When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest … You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Lev. 19:9) … You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. (Lev. 19:14)…. Still other laws are not completely understood … You shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material (Lev. 19:19) … You (men) shall not round off the side growth on your head, or destroy the side growth of beard. (Lev. 19:27)
Even though these mitzvot were compiled over two thousand years ago, when viewed in total, they still present a path toward a better, more peaceful world. They look beyond just the needs of the individual and envision a world that acts to perfect the community … including all the people – wealthy and needy – its animals, and nature itself.
Some of these commandments apply to an age different than ours; but, for the most part, they are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. And, if followed, not just studied, they reflect the essence of Torah. They command the Israelite community (including us today) to be holy … separate from others … and work to create a better world… a world of Tikkun Olam … a world repaired.
This should be our mission as contemporary Jews … so beautifully stated this week in K’doshim.