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Torah Sparks

Parashat Kedoshim - Mevarekhim Hahodesh
April 26, 2014 – 26 Nisan 5774

Annual (Leviticus 19:1-20:27): Etz Hayim p. 693; Hertz p. 497
Triennial (Leviticus 19:1-37): Etz Hayim p. 693; Hertz p. 497
Haftarah (Amos 9:7-15): Etz Hayim p. 706; Hertz p. 509

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

One of the Torah’s seminal chapters, Leviticus 19 exhorts the Israelites to be holy because God is holy. Holiness is achieved, in part, by honoring our parents, protecting our children, rejecting idolatry, giving to the poor, offering sacrifices sincerely, and dealing with strangers and neighbors with decency and fairness.

The second part of the parasha, Leviticus 20, returns to some of the same themes, focusing heavily on sexual ethics found in Leviticus 18 and avoiding idolatry.

Theme #1: Holiness and Wholeness

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

At the heart of the section in the Torah known as the “Holiness Code” is a reminder that Israel holds a special place in God’s heart, and that we must act accordingly.

God is the absolute authority over the world because He is separate from it and transcends it but He is not withdrawn from it. Israel must in imitating God by being a holy nation similarly not withdraw from the world of the nations but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living. — Martin Buber, Behirat Yisrael

A great many of these laws are completely unenforceable. After all, what is involved in “respecting” your mother and father -- and who is going to determine that you have violated such a stricture? If I leave behind a single stalk of wheat in the corner of my field, will I be deemed to have kept the requirement of leaving some food for the gleaners? Probably not. But then, how much is enough? The Bible doesn’t say. … Since none of these things is spelled out, what actually violates the law is always going to be a matter of opinion. … How can you order someone to have common decency? That seems to be the reason why the text keeps coming back to its main point, being holy. “You know what it means to be holy,” it seems to say. “So there is no reason to try to specify everything involved. Just don’t do anything that is not appropriate to someone who is holy.” — James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible

God’s command that Jews should be holy is as much a manifesto for the repair of the world as it is a program for the healing of the soul. Jewish life is life with a mission: to grow religiously, to question life’s meaning, and to leave the world a better place than we found it. — Daniel Gordis, God Was Not in the Fire

Questions for Discussion:

For Buber, the Jewish responsibility to be holy is not only for us, but for the sake of teaching the world proper behavior as prescribed by God. Often, we find ourselves in places where our words and actions are understood as being representative of Jews in general. Is this an unfair responsibility? How can we clarify that our behavior is not necessarily the same as other Jews, and should not be seen as such?

Or, if we embrace this responsibility, can this make us more motivated to be the best we can be? Are we guilty of the same behavior in reverse, that is taking the action of one individual and assigning that trait to everyone in that person’s cohort?

Kugel understands “holiness” as the motivating force that enables us to act with common sense and with reasonable boundaries. If, as Kugel claims, it is impossible to mention all the ways to be holy, why does the text bother trying to enumerate them? Is there something “holier” about the laws found in today’s portion than what is not found in it? And to what extent should we be free to define for ourselves what holiness ought to be?

Gordis echoes Buber’s idea that holiness must be directed outwardly. If Jewish life is, indeed, “life with a mission,” to what extent can an introverted Jew fulfill this mission? If an introvert takes Jewish observance seriously, should that person try to resist his/her natural instincts? Or can such a person still make a real contribution to creating holiness in the world without sacrificing his/her comfort zone?

Theme #2: “…And Don’t You Forget It!”

You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:37)

It’s easy to wonder why God continually feels the need to remind the Israelites that these commandments of holiness come from God.

I particularly adore the percussive repetition of “I am the Lord.” It’s the key to the whole chapter. Why? Start with an obvious point: these are not laws that people want to follow. The employer wants to hold the wages overnight. The farmer wants to pick up fallen fruit. The victim wants to take vengeance. So why should they follow these laws? … But, as this litany suggests, even biblical law is not natural at all. Law can exist only if there is power to enforce it (the police, the courts). “I am the Lord” is a statement of faith, but even more a statement of force. For the Israelites, what upheld these laws? The knowledge that the Lord — the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, the God the ten plagues, the Really Supreme Court – was there to enforce them. — David Plotz, Good Book

In the Book of Leviticus … everything that sets Israel visibly apart from other nations — and a great deal is designed to do exactly that — concerns God, who set Israel apart in the first place. And, by the same token, everything that might divide one Israelite from another disturbs the perfection of the covenant between Israel and God and therefore, once again, concerns God. All the actions of ordinary living are sacralized by being interpreted as actions involving God, but all key, prescribed measures are predictable and efficacious, and all are ultimately benevolent. — Jack Miles, God: A Biography

The passage “You shall be holy,” might be taken to imply that your holiness is to be equal to Mine; and so Scripture plainly states, “For I the Lord your God am holy”; that is to say, My holiness is superior to yours. — Leviticus Rabbah 24:9

Questions for Discussion:

Plotz sees the constant reminder that God is in charge as an intimidation tactic meant to keep otherwise dishonest people in check. This idea seems to run counter to the way that some readers see this chapter; to many, Leviticus 19 is the most “gentle” chapter in the book, focusing on matters of ethics and, in its best moments, love. Does Plotz seem to argue that people are not naturally disposed to ethical behavior, and must be exhorted into decency?

Miles says that God’s central role in Judaism impacts our lives both with those outside and inside our faith; after all, as Plotz indicates above, even if we don’t want to act decently, the simple fact that God demands it helps to keep us in check. Is justifying our behavior with the rationale that “it’s because God wants it” discourage our curiosity to discover the meaning of the commandments? Or does it take the pressure off of us to know that we don’t have to determine the meaning ourselves?

Lest we grow too haughty, Leviticus Rabbah reminds us that human holiness can never equal that of God, no matter how much we try to imitate God’s greatest attributes; imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, but imitating God doesn’t transform us into something we are not. Arrogant people are often accused of trying to “play God.” Is this an easy trap for well-meaning people to fall into, or can we quite easily note what makes us different from God even when we are imitating God?

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