Monday, April 25, 2011

What is Holiness? / Parshat Kedoshim

We have arrived at the peak of the Torah. Imagine Torah as a mountain – like Everest or Sinai. Think of Genesis and Exodus as the ascent up one face. The first half of Leviticus is the final assault on the peak. The latter half of Leviticus is the first step of the trek down the other side, with Numbers and Deuteronomy comprising the rest of the trip to the base camp.

Each year we climb the mountain. Year after year. At the peak of the mountain is the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which has come to be dubbed by Bible scholars “The Holiness Code” because it spells out in detail, and by example, what it means to live a holy life in covenant with God. Fulfillment of the Holiness Code is the greatest height to which we, as human beings, can ascend.

At the very moment Moses ascended Mount Sinai, God instructed him to tell the people, “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Holiness Code begins with these words:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)
Is “holy” here description or prescription? This is not a description of the Israelites. It is a prescriptive statement: Be holy because I, the Lord your God [in whose image you were created] am holy.

What follow in rapid succession are three commandments (Leviticus 19:3-4), which I present as a bulleted list for clarity:
  • You shall each revere his mother and his father,
  • and keep My Sabbaths: I the Lord am your God.
  • Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I the Lord am your God.
Respect your parents who gave you physical life. Keep my Sabbath celebrations of creation, and thereby appreciate God, the ground of existence, who made it possible for the universe to come into being. Do not be led astray and invest your spiritual energy running after idols; focus on what is ultimate.

Phrased another way, this is the beginning of the formula for becoming a holy people:
  • appreciate your life;
  • know the Source of existence;
  • focus on what is ultimate, not distractions.
Most of the mitzvot in chapter 19 are bein adam l’chavero; they concern human relationships: leave part of your harvest for the poor, do not steal from or deal deceitfully or dishonestly with others, do not take advantage of the frailties and weaknesses of others, judge all impartially, do not harbor hatred or resentment, do not eat the blood of any living creature, do not sell your daughters into harlotry, rise before the elderly and show them respect, treat strangers decently, conduct business honestly. What underlies all these is the recognition and conviction that humans have dignity bestowed by God, and to be holy, we must uphold that dignity in all our interactions with others. That’s a tall order. Do you do that most of the time? Are there times when you haven’t and wish you could have what we called on the playground a “redo?” If you think you don’t always get it right, life will provide you many more opportunities.

Some of the mitzvot of chapter 19 are bein adam l’makom; they concern our relationship with God: peace-offerings, kilayim (crossbreeding animal or plant species), abstaining from collecting the produce of fruit trees for their first three years. These are often called chukim, mitzvot for which there is no clear rational basis. How can these make us holy? Perhaps the purpose of chukim is to help us train ourselves to do things that would not automatically or naturally be our choice, but to do them because they are related to a higher purpose.

There has long been a debate about what was given at Mount Sinai. The whole Torah (including Leviticus 19)? All but Deuteronomy (again, including Leviticus 19)? Just the Ten Commandments? Only the first two commandments? Just the first word, Anochi (“I”)? The Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Mendel of Rymanow (1745–1815), taught that at Sinai only the aleph of Anochi was revealed – a letter that is silent, human breath. The aleph is the One, God Who is the ground of being, beyond words. Yet we humans have to attach words to express our experience. And so, amending the words of Hillel, at Sinai the silent first letter aleph was revealed and “All the rest is human commentary.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed it similarly: What God revealed at Sinai was God; the rest is midrash.

Talmud (Shabbat 105a) interprets Anochi as an acronym for Ana Nafshai Katvit Yahvit (“I Myself wrote it and gave it”), but I much prefer the explanation of the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) who interprets Anochi this way: “I wrote and gave Myself.” At Sinai, Israel encountered God and bound themselves to God in their own unique way.

The essence of that way is spelled out in the 19th chapter of Leviticus: we are to live in such a way that we uphold the dignity of every human being and treat them as the image of God before us. In that way, we will earn the designation “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

What more can you do to live in this way?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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