Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Being Holy

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)
The first 18 chapters of the book of Vayiqra / Leviticus, which we have been reading since before Pesah, can be challenging for modern Jews. The Torah spends a luxuriously extensive amount of time on the (frequently gory) details of the ancient sacrificial cult, the form of worship that our ancestors practiced prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE. But of course none of this applies to us today - we are fortunate that we communicate with God directly through the words of prayer, without a priestly intermediary.

And suddenly, Vayiqra opens up into another, seemingly more relevant way of interacting with God, a kind of counterpoint to the beginning of the book: rules of how to conduct ourselves with respect to others. Holiness may not only be achieved through sacrifice; it may also be attained by honoring one’s parents, paying a laborer his fair wages at the end of the day (rather than the following day), and not placing a stumbling block before the blind. The principles enumerated in this passage, to which scholars typically refer as “the Holiness Code,” are mitzvot / commandments of the sort that not only make for a healthy society, but also give us a basis for understanding that God’s demands of us are not merely personal or ritual in nature; they also require derekh eretz, respect in all our dealings with others. Holiness is not only achieved through coming to synagogue or singing Shema Yisrael with your children at bedtime -- it is also found in commitment to placing the needs of others high on your list of priorities, and sometimes above your own needs.

The Talmud tells us that several of the agricultural laws identified in Leviticus 19 must be taught to converts to Judaism, including leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested and not picking up fallen fruit, both for the benefit of the needy in your town. The message of these laws, the very essence and literal meaning of derekh eretz (“the way of the land”), is that we are obligated to take care of one another -- to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to clothe the naked. As we are far removed from the land itself and often cushioned from the sight of hungry and homeless people, the Torah’s challenge to us today is to pro-actively find ways to fulfill these mitzvot.

It is through providing for those in need that we may rise to the holiness that God expects of us. Qedoshim tihyu - you shall be holy.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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