This week’s parasha in Israel is Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, Vayikra (Lev. 16:1-20:27). Chapter 16 addresses Yom Kippur and chapters 17-20 are part of what is known as the holiness code (17:1-26:46).
The central idea of the holiness code is found in 19:1
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them:
‘You shall be holy for I, the LORD your God am holy’.”
From this verse we see that the people of Israel bear a collective responsibility to achieve holiness, to be holy as ADONAI is holy. Itis a collectivecalling. The laws and commandments in this section are usually addressed to all of Israel, not just to Moshe, Aaron or the priesthood. In fact, virtually all the sections of the holiness code open with HaShem commanding Moshe to speak to the people of Israel (chapter 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25). The holiness code emphasizes the interdependence of all Israelites in every aspect of life, including their history, and shared destiny. It resembles two other major collections in the Torah, the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20:19-23:33) and the Deuteronic laws, specifically Deut. 12-28.
This week’s parasha only includes the first four chapters of the holiness code 17-20. There is a progression in these four chapters, from “This is what the LORD commanded to “You shall be holy for I, the LORD your God am holy.”
17:2 “This is what the LORD has commanded…” The chapter details the requirement that all sacrifice be offered at the one, legitimate altar near the entrance to the tent of meeting, the requirements concerning the blood of animals for both sacrificial animals and those used for food, the prohibition against the consumption of blood, and the prohibition against eating the flesh from carcasses of animals that died or were torn by beasts.
18:2 “I the LORD am your God you shall…” What follows is the most systematic and complete collection of laws in the Torah dealing with the subject of incest and forbidden sexual unions. It defines which unions among relatives are forbidden on grounds of incest, adultery, etc. In the process the limits of the immediate family are defined.
19:2-20:26 “You shall be holy for I, the LORD your God am holy”. It is interesting that the command for Israel to be holy as HaShem is holy is found in this chapter. Vayikra is the center of the Torah, and chapter 19 is the center of Vayikra. Thus the very center of Torah focuses on holiness. Chapter 20 continues the idea of holiness and concludes in vv. 24 and 26, with the declaration, “I the LORD am your God who has set you apart from different peoples…You shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples. Sandwiched between the two commands to be holy for I the LORD your God am holy in 19:2 and 20:26 are commands on what it means to be a people set apart to be holy.
These two chapters contain moral imperatives and seemingly irrational commands, like the prohibition against wearing clothes of mixed wool and linen, that seem to be far removed from that of our culture. Yet all the laws contained in them are applicable to our day.
To be holy means:
- not planting your field with different kinds of seed, not cross breeding your livestock or wearing clothes made of a forbidden mixture of wool and linen.Today we could interpret this as respecting the integrity of and caring for the environment;
- Not conforming with the idolatry of our time. Every age has it gods and idols. These can vary from region to region, but due to globalization and social media there is less variation than in times past. When we read chapters 19 and 20 we need to ask what gods or idols are preventing us from being holy as HaShem is holy;
- being honest in business;
- doing justice;
- and sharing our blessings with others and treating the poor with dignity and honor. This is drawn from the command to not harvest the corners of your fields.
To be holy also includes loving your neighbor and the stranger as yourself (19:18, 34), which means:
- not stealing, lying, or deceiving others;
- not standing idly by when someone else’s life is in danger;
- not insulting or taking advantage of others even when they are completely unaware of it. This is drawn from the commands not to curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind;
- not hating people, bearing a grudge or taking revenge. Instead, when someone has done something wrong to you, and hurt your talk with them. Let them know what they have done and how it has hurt you, give them a chance to apologize and make amends, and then forgive them. Yeshua commands us in such situations to go to a brother (sister) and be reconciled (Matt. 5:24)
Being holy means having the courage to make mistakes and admit those mistakes. Being holy requires us to have the courage to be different. Above all “Be holy” means having the courage to be different, to be distinctive and set apart. On the surface, the command to “Be holy for I the LORD your God am holy” is counter-intuitive because it calls on us to be like God. But, how can we be like God? He is infinite, we are finite. He is eternal, we are mortal. Yet, Torah tells us that in certain respects we can be like God. We are created in His image, and we can act in the same ways as He acts.
When we act holy as He is holy, we bear witness to the presence of God on earth. Being holy means to live in the conscious presence of God. All of the laws, rules and regulations in this week’s Torah portion and in the entire Tanakh, remind us of the presence of God, and our responsibility to emulate Him. We are also reminded that no man is an island, we are all interrelated, even or especially in holiness. The holiness code addresses all the people of Israel, native born or grafted in. I challenge all of us to be courageous, to be different by choosing to live a holy life as defined in the Scripture, particularly the holiness code, and in the process to bring the living presence of HaShem into the world.
* This week’s portion was prepared by my Eshet Chayil, Dr. Vered Hillel.