Our portion begins this week with: “God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: ‘You must be holy because I am holy, God, your God.’” K’doshim declares that we are holies, that we are a holy people.
Almost the entirety of Sefer Vayikra is a manual about holiness. It begins with the details of the sacrificial service of Kohanim officiating in the Mishkan and then moves through details regarding personal holiness, being Tamei and Tahor, ritually connected and obligated or being in a state of ritual time-out. This portion focuses on the holiness of the community. There are three main sections in this parashah: codes of holiness, forbidden practices, and the penalties for not following these codes and engaging in forbidden practices.
The laws of holiness starts with: “Eish Emo V’Aviv Tira’ooh V’et Shabtotai Tishmaru, Ani Adonai Eloheichem - A person must have awe of their mother and father and my Shabbats must be guarded – I am God.” (Vayikra 19:3) Rashi, quoting the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 5b, says the strange construction of the verse means that you are not to listen to your parents if they tell you violate Shabbat. The Talmud in Bava Metzia expands this to all of the commandments.
This list of holiness codes continues with not having false gods and includes such topics as sacrificial offerings, leaving the corners of the fields and the fallen crops for the poor and for strangers, not stealing, not placing a stumbling block before the blind, not perverting justice, not being a gossip, not hating your fellow in your heart, loving your fellow as yourself, and not wearing wool with linen.
The forbidden practices list includes not harvesting the first three years of a tree’s fruit, not consuming blood, not shaving the corners of one’s face, not hurting the feelings of a stranger, and not having false measurements that could be used to cheat someone in the market place.
The penalties section begins with a warning to not offer our children to Molech and then includes mostly death by stoning and being cut off from one’s community as the ultimate punishments.
This portion presents what is really a radical theology: that we are to be holy because God is holy. We are told to do and not do the commandments in the portion because: “I am God your God” This phrase is repeated at least 18 times in K’doshim.
To be in relationship to our God does not just mean to believe or to worship, but to be as God is. As God is holy, we are to be holy. While that might be a very tall order, it also demands that we better understand what this word Kadosh, holy means.
Back in Parshat Terumah in the Book of Exodus, when we are told to build the Mishkan, God says: “V’asooh Li Mikdash, V’shachanti B’tocham – Make me a holy sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.” (Shemot 25:8)
Early in Leviticus we learn that it is not just the building of the holy place that allows God’s Shechinah, dwelling presence, to be in our midst, but that we must fill the Mishkan with holy acts of sacrificial offerings. In today’s reading we are taught that’s it not just the Kohanim who make God’s presence manifest, it depends on the entire community as well. When we act in holy ways, God dwells in our midst. The holiness that we manifest is God’s spirit dwelling within.
Webster’s dictionary defines holy as:
1. exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
2. divine <for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9>
3. devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity <a holy temple> <holy prophets>
4. having a divine quality, venerated as or as if sacred <holy scripture>
I’m not sure how many of us consider ourselves to be exalted, worthy of complete devotion, divine, devoted entirely to God, venerated or sacred. And yet, this portion, with no uncertainty, is commanding us all to be holy since God is holy. So what else might holy mean in this context?
Another way to think of holiness is as a state of specialness.
The Torah scroll is holy not because it’s raw materials of animal skins, charcoal, gum Arabic, gallnut powder, copper sulfate and wooden handles are inherently sacred or special, but because these materials were fashioned with intention, with the purpose to convey the stories and teachings that make us a community, a sacred fellowship designed to bring more goodness into the world. The holiness of the siddur that we kiss when it drops is also not about its physical attributes, but because we revere the words and the traditions that it contains and represents.
And while we may have a harder time seeing ourselves as holy, it is not about the raw materials that make up a human body, but about the intention, the goodness, the specialness that each of us contains and the sacred potentials within everyone.
While this portion demands a difficult task, that we all be holy, this concept is a foundation of Judaism and daily Jewish practice. Whenever we light Shabbat candles, study Torah, wash our hands, hang a mezuzah, participate in a Passover seder, or engage in dozens of other acts, we recite: “Asher Kidshanu B’Mitzvotov Vitzivanu…”, “ for you have made us holy through your mitzvot and commanded us to… light Shabbat candles, study Torah, wash our hands, etc. etc.”
At the conclusion of this portion an additional, and somewhat disturbing insight, is offered into the nature of this holiness that we are commanded to be: Vayikra 20:26 says: “You will be holy to Me, for I, God am holy, and I have separated (V’avdil) you from among the peoples to be mine.” This concept, with similar wording, shows up every Saturday night as part of Havdalah, the ritual of separating Shabbat from the other days of the week. We bless God who “separates between holy and ordinary, between light and darkness, between Israel and the peoples, and between the seventh day and the six days of working, doing”.
While this wording does not make the concept any less disturbing in terms of separating us as Jews from everyone else, it does offer an important insight into the nature of holiness by giving us the contrast, the opposite of Kadosh which is Chol. While this word can be translated as “secular” or “ordinary”, the shoresh, the root of the word means both “profane” and “common”, and it also means pierced, hollowed out, as in Chalil – a hollow flute, pipe or drum. The opposite of hallowed is hollowed. To be not holy is to be empty, waiting to be filled.
Clearly our relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors and relatives is vastly different from the Torah’s commandment for Bnai Yisrael to separate themselves from the other nations and their pagan practices. We are an Am Segulah – a chosen people, not The Chosen People. We are all chosen in different ways and for different tasks. Today the boundaries between peoples and cultures are much more permeable. Judaism has centuries of borrowing ideas and recipes from the peoples around us, and in the modern age, Judaism is seen as hip and attractive with many non-Jews taking an interest in our mystical traditions, our music, our foods, and our teachings.
Today’s Torah portion speaks of this in 19:33. “When a sojourner comes to reside in your land, do not hurt his feelings. The foreigner who becomes a convert must be treated exactly like one who is native born among you. You shall love this person as you love yourself for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am God your God.” One of the ways that we are to be holy is to treat all people with respect.
Being holy is not a fixed state. Perhaps, it’s about potential.
When a person once came before Shammai and said he would convert to Judaism only if he could be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai drove him away with a yard stick. When the same person came before Hillel, Hillel told him that he could do it even faster. “What hurts you, don’t do to someone else.” Hillel said. “That is the entire Torah. The rest is explanation – go now and study.” Shammai and Hillel’s many scholarly debates in the Talmud often came down to a difference in perspective. Shammai concerned himself with actuality; Hillel focused on the potential of a ritual, a moment, or the potential of a person. And Hillel based his answer to the would-be-convert on this week’s portion: “V’ahtah L’rai’chah Camochah – Love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
So we learn from Parshat K’doshim that we are to be respectful and loving. We are to be holy. If the opposite of Kadosh is hollow, not filled, then Kadosh is filled. When we are Kadosh, we are filled with sacred intention, with divine goodness. When we are holy we are filled with our realized best potential.