Leviticus 19:1 to 20:27
The Israelite community is told by God to be a “holy people.” But sages through the ages have questioned the meaning and responsibilities of “a holy people.”
“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)
These are the opening words of this week’s parsha. Both the title and the opening words of the parsha focus on the word kadosh (or it’s plural, k’doshim) which is translated into English as “holy.” Exactly what is meant by kadosh/holy is the subject of these comments.
It is interesting to note that this parsha is located at the approximate center of the Five Books of Moses. But, more than the center location in the written Torah, the material covered can be said to be at the center of our faith. Chapters 18, which we read last week, through to Chapter 26, one chapter from the end of Leviticus, is called the Holiness Code, It contains a wide range of laws and commandments that provide a guide for all facets of ethical and religious daily life.… Materials covered include sacrifices, justice, caring for the poor and infirm, treatment of women and the elderly, business conduct, celebrations and holidays, and much more.
It is understood that these are laws and commandments given by God for the people of Israel. But what does it mean to be holy? How can both God and the people be holy?
First, the sages noted that the command to “be holy” was addressed to the “whole Israelite community” … men, women, children, and the strangers living within the community. It is not just for the priests or the community leaders.
Because a lengthy listing of laws follows this request to be holy, many thought that one would be holy if all the laws were followed.
The Sifra, a fourth century commentary on Leviticus, interprets the words “you shall be holy”, as “you shall be separate.” The Israelites were to be holy … to be “different, unique, and separate from the ways of others. [They were to] be distinct in [the] moral and ritual ways of life.” They were to become a nations of priests… a holy nation … They were to show the rest of the world the ways of God. (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 2, p. 130)
Martin Buber saw this call to be holy … to be separate and unique … as a special goal and responsibility. The Israelites were to aspire to a spiritual and ethical excellence that could enrich and influence other peoples and other nations. (Ibid)
As I have noted in the past, God has the power to create (birth) and destroy (death). But mankind has the power to affect all that occurs between creation and distraction. Through the Holiness Code, the Eternal is giving the Israelites the guidelines for the creation of a world which God envisions…. A God-like, holy world …. By following these laws and commandments the Israelites can create this holy world … and in the process, become holy themselves.
But, in the end, mankind has free will – the freedom to choose. Moses is given the task of communicating these mitzvot to the people and create a “nation of priests” for the world to view… and learn from.
However, Nachmanides, saw a deeper meaning the words “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord Your God, is holy. The Eternal views the laws through the lenses of Justice and Mercy. To be holy, like the Eternal, the Israelites should also view these commandments through the same lenses. Nachmanides argues that one can follow all the laws of Torah, yet still be mean, selfish, and corrupt. A person can eat too much, drink too much, take advantage of one’s wife, cheat others by being unwilling to accept fair compromises. In truth, a person can be a scoundrel with full permission of Torah.
To be holy, Nachmainides states that one must also refuse to take advantage of loopholes and omissions that may be may be found in Torah. One must practice both justice and mercy. (Ibid, p. 134)
As a Reform Jew living in 21st Century America, to be holy, we must also look at the law as it applies to our world. For example, in viewing the laws affecting the poor, we read the command to leave the gleanings of one’s crop for the needy. This still applies today, even if we don’t harvest a crop. Today a “holy person” would give money or goods from production to help the needy.
Another example: On the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur, we are to fast. But if a person is sick or needs food for health reasons, it is understood that this should always consume the needed medicine and or food as needed.
Also, for many people – including the Jewish Reform movement – the understanding of the laws regarding sexual orientation have also changed as illustrated by Leviticus 18:22 – “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman ….” Our interaction with this law has changed over the past fifty years. Today we realize that many couples have been living same sex relationships and will continue to do so in the future. The Reform movement has gone on record saying that individuals involved in a these relationships should be given the same freedom to choose their life-partners and experience the same happiness and dignity as traditionally married couples.
So, to be holy is more than just following the laws of Torah. Like God, to live a life of holiness, both justice and mercy must become part of daily living.
The goal of holiness was of great importance to the early Israelites …. And it should also be in the minds and hearts of all Jews today.