By Rabbi Michael Beyo
This weeks Torah portion is made of two separate Parashiot; Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Parashat Kedoshim is an extremely important Torah section since so many of our Mitzvot are derived from this Parasha. Out of the 613 commandments that our tradition attributes being from the Torah we can learn 51 from this Parasha alone and one of the most important aspect of any law – Divine Law – is the aspect of Holiness. What is the essence of Holiness? Who is Holy and why? Are we Jews holier than Thou?
The concept of holiness is one of the essential elements of any religion, of service to God, and of the understanding of the position that man needs to have in relation to God. Parashat Kedoshim starts with a very strong statement: Hashem spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your God (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2). A similar verse is also found in a previous Torah portion : [...] you shall sanctify yourselves and you will be holy, for I am holy [...] (Vayikra/Leviticus 11:44). In these verses the concept of Kedusha – Holiness – is presented to us in all of its intensity being a specific element of faith. I say this because there can be no concept and understanding of holiness outside of the realm of religion. It is an impending responsibility of the person of faith to discover what holiness means and avoid the pitfalls – devastating at times – that a wrong understanding of this concept can lead to.
The Netziv of Voloshin - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naftali_Zvi_Yehuda_Berlin - writes that often the Torah says “speak to the assembly of the Children of Israel” but in the verse that we quoted the Torah adds the words entire and thus the verse reads “speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel.” According to the Netziv - entire/El Kol – means to each one and one individually and not to the entire collective nation. His interpretation is definitely not a simple interpretation of the text but it is interesting to understand the meaning of the Netziv. The meaning of this commentary is that the each individual conceives differently of the status of holiness since each person is different from the other by our nature and nurture, but the reality of the commandments, the reality of a code of law embodied in the Halacha is equal to all – the big, the small, the intelligent, the stupid, the young, the old, the scholar and the ignorant. For the important concept of holiness we may not make a generalization and each person has to strive to holiness according to their own individual capacity and aptitudes.
Chaim ibn Attar - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_ibn_Attar - in his commentary says that: ‘You shall be holy’ is a commandment for the future. In fact the grammatical form of the words indicates that this holiness will happen in the future. And so he adds that this Mitzva will never end. Chain ibn Attar understood better than others the danger of Holiness and the terrifying consequences that can escalate when we attribute holiness to what surrounds us – a person, an object, a land. Moreover the intrinsic danger when we declare that a certain nation is holy or holier than another. The Mitzva of ‘You shall be holy’ is a never ending journey that we have to strive for. It is not an ontological quality inherent in us, it is a goal that we have to strive for and we will probably never achieve since only God is Holy. The Or Achaim continues and says that for any gate of holiness that a person might achieve there are higher level of holiness that he has to strive for and for ever the person has the commandment to become holy but he also needs to know that he will never be holy because only God is holy, as the verse says: “for I [God] am holy.”
The gates of holiness alluded here are the Mitzvot – the commandments - that through them a person can strive to holiness since in our human existence there is no inherent holiness but only the potential for man to strive to holiness – to strive towards God.
Are you Holier than Thou?