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Friday, May 06, 2005

Kedoshim - The Path to Holiness

וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר: דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל, ואמרת אליהם: קדושים תהיו, כי קדוש אני ה' אלקיכם. איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתותי תשמורו, אני ה' אלקיכם.

(ויקרא י"ט, א'-ב')

This week's parasha is full with mitzvot of all kinds, 51 in total. The parasha opens with the lofty command to being holy:

And the Lord spoke unto Moshe, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel and say unto them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

(VaYikra 19, 1-2)

God is requesting us to be holy and our first reaction might well be: "who, me?". Requesting us to be holy in our ways, and giving God as an example of holiness to follow, might seem like an awfully daunting task for most of us. How are we to understand this command and what can we do in order to fulfill it?

First, we must realise that the command is an individual one. God stresses to Moshe that he should speak to all of Israel and this additional word - "all" - seems superfluous. Did God think that Moshe would pass on his command only to some but not to all? R. Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Natziv of Volozhin, learns from this word that God wished to stress that the command is addressed to each and every individual, not only to the fortunate few who can truly accept the demand to be holy. Each one of us should strive to fulfill this call to be holy according to our personal capabilities and skills, even if the goal seems unattainable and we might never reach it. The effort is no less important than the result. The idea that this command is a continuous task, a vision which we should aspire to and never cease trying to fulfill, is further implied by the future sense of the verse: "you shall be holy" and not "you are holy".

Holiness is not something we are born with; it is something we teach and discipline ourselves to try and become. And the path to holiness is given to us immediately following the command to be holy: the mitzvot. We are all familiar with the categorization of mitzvot into those that relate to our relationship with God (ben adam la'makom) and those that relate to our relationship with our fellow human beings (ben adam la'chavero). Reading the 51 mitzvot in this week's parasha we see that they encompass all areas of life and that the two categories are intertwined as one. For example, the first two mitzvot are:

You shall fear every man his mother and his father, and you shall keep My sabbaths, I am the Lord your God.

(VaYikra 19, 3)

Fearing ones' parents is ben adam la'chavero; keeping the shabbat is ben adam la'makom. Yet both of them appear in the same verse and conclude with the ubiquitous phrase of this parasha, the official "seal" of God that indicates this commane is his: "I am the Lord your God".

All too often, we are educated that being a good Jew means we should keep the shabbat, we should put teffilin on every day, we should pray three times a day and we should keep kosher. A common phrase used by religious people to enquire whether someone is religious is: "nu, is he a shomer shabbat?" - does he keep the shabbat? We do not ask: "does he fear his parents?", or "does he respect the elderly?", or "does he love his neighbour as he loves himself?". The murderer of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister, is a "religious" Jew who until this day keeps all the laws of kashrut and shabbat in jail, yet still fails to comprehend that "thou shall not kill" is also a mitzva.

What Kedoshim teaches us is that there is no difference between the mitzvot. Just as it is important to keep shabbat so it is important to fear one's parents and to love others like we love ourselves. God stressed "I am the Lord your God" on all the mitzvot and taught us that the path to holiness is seeing the entire body of the Torah as one unit, as one recipe for striving to be holy and follow his ways.

The idea for this week's Thought is from Yohanan Flusser.