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Parashat Kedoshim includes the famous phrase "Love your neighbour as you love yourself" which is approximately the middle sentence of the Torah. This phrase is embedded in a section often called the Holiness Code which are a series of laws describing what is required to be holy, containing a number of important ethical precepts.

Another voice

Kedoshim by Marion Blumenthal :: 5768

Marion Lev Blumenthal is a Rabbinical School student at HUC-JIR of the Reform movement. Long active in Jewish communal life, She is the national chair of Makom, a Jewish Agency initiative to deepen Israel engagement, and serves on the governing bodies of the Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service, Synagogue 3000 and others. A psychotherapist by training, Marion plans to combine those skills in her work as a rabbi.

Parshat Kedoshim provides us with a code of rituals and of ethical acts to live by. The first two verses of Parshat Kedoshim read, "God spoke to Moses saying; Speak to the gathered Israelite community and say to them: 'You shall be holy, for I, your God YHWH, am holy.'" These powerful words immediately raise several intertwining questions: Why be holy? What does holiness mean? And, perhaps most importantly, how are we to be holy?

Underlying the answer to all these questions is the key feature of holiness: Holiness is an attribute of God. We are commanded to act like God, (imitatio dei) for each of us has the capacity to be like God. Ramban states that to imitate God by being like Him, we must separate ourselves from the profane as He does by being holy.

Much of Leviticus gears its message to the priests. In contrast, the Holiness Code of Parshat Kedoshim in Leviticus 19 obligates each and every Israelite. Thus, the obligation to be holy devolved not only upon Moses, nor upon the priests alone, but upon all the People of Israel. This was a democratic and radical concept for its time.

But the command is also a message of difference. The Holiness Code that follows the opening verses in this Parasha encompasses laws governing man's behavior to other humans (ben adam lahavero) and behavior of humans to God (ben adam lamakom). It details what God wants from us as covenantal partners. Its panoply of laws and commandments encompasses rites and ethics and includes sacrificial practices, family relations, obligations to the less fortunate, commerce, and more. Holiness is to touch every aspect of one's daily life. God instructs Moses to relay the code to the "the gathered Israelite community." The injunction to be holy therefore is directed not merely to each individual acting alone, nor to an aggregate of individuals. Rather, it is addressed to the Jewish People acting collectively, as a nation.

Being holy means being set apart, separate from the ordinary; it means being consecrated, sacred or, in short, divine. According to Sifra, the Israelites, by virtue of their ritual practices and way of life, are to be set apart as a holy nation. If we act differently (with holiness), we'll be different from others; and if we are different from others (as a holy nation), we'll act differently. Holy deeds and holy separation are inextricably intertwined. By acting holy we create a sacred space for God to dwell in our midst.

Today we live in unprecedented times. Never before have we been more accepted by the larger society and more integrated into the wider culture. But our personal freedom challenges our ability to live lives of holiness, of sacred difference, not only as individuals, but as a people as well. How do we maintain our distinctive religious tradition whilst living in a universalistic culture? Sifra teaches that it is not sufficient for us to maintain the commandments as individuals. We must seek to be a holy community.

By repeatedly coming together for sacred purposes - be it worship, learning, or tikun olam - in communities of shared meaning, we reinforce our communal identity, enabling us to strive for holiness. Thus, when we come together as a community of learners at a Limmud conference, when we pray together as a congregation, when we attend to the needs of vulnerable populations, we fulfill our commandment to be a Holy people acting in the image of God. It is through our actions informed by the Holiness Code, as individuals and as a people that we honor the heritage of our ancestors who stood at Sinai.


More by Marion Blumenthal

Another voice by Rachel Marcus

Last year the walnut tree my father planted twenty years ago bore its first fruit: one lone walnut. This year, they're selling the house; they'll be gone before it can produce its second. Never mind, said my father over Pesach, repeating what he'd said when he planted it: I planted it for future generations. He was echoing the midrash on parashat Kedoshim: the Emperor Hadrian once came across a very old man planting fig trees. "Why are you working in vain, old man?" the Roman asked the Jew. Do you think you're going to get to eat the fruits of your labour?" "I will eat them if I merit to," said the old man; "and if not, let my children eat them".

The very first miracle performed for the Jewish nation birthed from the Red Sea into the desert involved a tree. G-d showed Moses a tree to throw into the waters of Marah to make them sweet. And there, the text says, G-d laid down "hoq u-mishpat": statute and law. In our own parashah, the statutes and laws revolve around separation and justice. You shall be holy, says G-d, as I am holy, as I have separated you from the peoples. To be holy is to separate, to distinguish, to form judgments and categories. In Kedoshim we learn that if we fail to create the just society for which the parashah provides the blueprint, we forfeit our society, our land, our trees and their fruit. The association between trees, law, and the subsistence of the Jewish people is carved into our collective psyche. Just as at Marah, our parasha associates trees with the injunction to keep Gd's "huqqim u-mishpatim", statutes and laws. It's not enough, our parasha tells us, simply to walk into the land and enjoy what has been left behind by those we have dispossessed: justice, says Parashat Kedoshim, is holiness. It is only by creating that just society that we merit to eat the fruit. This time, no one is going to sweeten the waters for us. And by rooting our society in justice and holiness, we plant not only for ourselves but for future generations.


More by Rachel Marcus

Other Divrei Torah on Kedoshim

  • 5766 (Aryeh Ben David)
  • 5766 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Daniel Anderson)
  • 5769 (Albert Ringer)
  • 5770 (Michelle Citrin)
  • 5770 (Yoni Smith)
  • 5771 (Marion Blumenthal)
  • 5771 (Muhammad Al-Hussaini)
  • 5773 (Sharonah Fredrick)
  • 5774 (Aryeh Ben David)
  • 5774 (Beth Steinberg)
  • 5775 (Alma and Daniel Reisel)