Parshat Acharei Mot- Kedoshim

This Shabbat, two Parshiot, אחרי מות   Acharei Mot and קדושים  —Kedoshim,  will be read. The second portion, קדושים  – Kedoshim, begins with a seemingly impossible command. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

ספר ויקרא פרק יט

א) וַיְדַבֵּר יְדֹוָד אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:

ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקיכֶם

1) Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: 2) Speak to the entire assembly of the Congregation of the Children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God.

This sounds impossible! The first hurdle is that how does one become holy? What are the means that one must use to become holy? The second hurdle is that we are supposed to be holy because Hashem is holy, but how can a human being be expected to be holy like Hashem?

What makes this directive even more daunting is that this commandment was said to the “entire assemblage of the Children of Israel,” men, women, and children. The only other commandment said to the entire assemblage was the commandment of the Korban Pesach, the Pesach offering. This implies that the obligation of holiness is incumbent upon each member of the Jewish people. One would think that this would apply only to a select group of spiritually elite people inclined to lead a holy life, not to your common man. But the Torah obligates everyone! How are we to fulfill this commandment?

  1. Ovadya Seforno (1480-1550) explains: Hashem took the Jewish people out of Egypt to be His holy nation. Since man was created in Hashem’s image, with the freedom to choose to follow in Hashem’s ways or not, man should choose to emulate the qualities of Hashem and be holy like Hashem. Just as Hashem is merciful, you be merciful. Just as Hashem is compassionate, you be compassionate. How does one reach these great qualities and become like Hashem? By keeping the commandments mentioned in this Parasha.

There is a subtle, hidden message here. One might think that only keeping the laws between Hashem and man brings a person to holiness, but that keeping the laws between a man and his fellow doesn’t add to one’s holiness, their being  merely social laws to help society function smoothly. However, many of the commandments in this week’s portion pertain to how Hashem wants us to relate and act to one another. Much toil and effort must also go into keeping those laws meticulously, for they are also part of Hashem’s Torah, and, therefore, they are also critical to bringing a person to holiness. Only when one keeps all the Torah’s laws will he be able to achieve holiness.

Rashi in his commentary on the words קדושים תהיו  – be holy –  quotes a Midrash that gives a different perspective. He comments.

רש”י על ויקרא פרק יט פסוק ב

הוו פרושים מן העריות ומן העבירה (ויקרא רבה) שכל מקום שאתה מוצא גדר ערוה אתה מוצא קדושה

Be separated from illicit relationships and sins of immorality, because wherever there is a separation from immorality, there is holiness.

The Torah correlates morality and holiness. Separating from immorality creates holiness. When one engages in immoral acts, he is destroying that holiness within him. Holiness and immorality are two diametrically opposed forces that cannot co-exist. For a Jewish person to be the host of Hashem’s holiness, he must distance himself from the source of unholiness, immorality.

From this perspective, although this is a tall order, especially in today’s world, the instructions for how to become holy are clear. We must raise ourselves above the common attitude towards these matters, which is: “everything is okay as long as you don’t hurt anyone. If both parties agree, everything is permitted.”

This formula does not work for a holy nation. A holy nation comprises holy people who make the conscious decision not to be ruled by their urges and base desires. They choose to abstain and distance themselves from the world’s temptations so as not to fall into the pit of immorality. This is what it means to be a holy nation.

The concept of holiness underlies the many customs surrounding issues between men and women, written in the Code of Jewish Law, that are so different and unconventional in today’s world.

The law that a man and a woman are not allowed to be alone together in a secluded area, or a woman’s modest dress, or the “don’t touch” rule between men and women, are examples of a holy society that seeks to elevate itself above the fleeting, illicit, petty pleasures people indulge in.

While the rest of the world revolves around those things, we, the Jewish nation, are fully engaged in performing deeds – mitzvot – that were engineered to make us holy and bring us closer to Hashem. From the moment that we open our eyes in the morning and recite the “Modeh ani” thanking Hashem for another day of life, the whole day is replete with opportunities to connect with Hashem. We connect through prayer, we connect through blessings on the food we eat- before and after, thanking Hashem for it. We connect with the blessing that we recite after using the bathroom as we thank Hashem for the miracle of our body working properly, which allows us to live a normal life. We are not consumed with trying to figure out where the next pleasure is going to come from, we are engaged in living a truly holy life.

The concept קדושה  – holiness-extends to many other areas of the Torah. It means “set aside for a holy purpose.” For example, when a man marries a woman, he says to her: “הרי את מקודשת לי בטבעת זו כדת משה וישראל  “ – Behold you are sanctified to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.” What is the meaning of the sanctification of the bride? The answer is, that now she is set aside and permitted to marry and live only with this man. No other person can marry her anymore.

The holiness of Shabbat is an intrinsic holiness bestowed upon it from Hashem at creation, as it says: (Genesis 2:3)

ספר בראשית פרק ב

ג) וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ

3) And Hashem blessed the seventh day and made it holy …

Therefore, the day of Shabbat is also holy in the way that it is set aside from the mundane workings of our daily life so that we can take advantage of the intrinsic holiness of the day. Hence, it is sanctified for holy activities such as praying, studying Torah, and interacting in a deep and meaningful way with our spouses and children. The intrinsic holiness of the day imbues the day’s activities with a magical, spiritual ingredient that glistens and sparkles from its holiness. On Shabbat, a person’s soul is endowed with an augmented sense of spirituality, the נשמה יתירה  which is sensitive to that spiritual element, and finds it especially beautiful and satisfying. Thus, the combination of the holiness of the Shabbat, and that we have set it aside for the pursuit of holiness, unite to create a most powerfully holy experience.

Just before receiving the Torah on Sinai, Hashem sent Moshe to ask the Jewish people if they wanted to become His nation. This is what Hashem told Moshe to tell them. (Exodus 19:6)

ספר שמות פרק יט

ו) וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ. אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

6) You shall be to me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Children of Israel.

The Jewish people accepted the mission and agreed to accept the Torah to consummate the deal. It is clear that being a holy nation was our calling from the very inception of our nationhood. On a national level, what is the meaning of this and how are we fulfill it?

In the end of the portion we find the concept of holiness – separated for holy purposes -in reference to the Jewish nation. The verse states (Leviticus 20:26):

ספר ויקרא פרק כ

כו) וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי

26) You shall be holy for Me, for I Hashem am holy; and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.

By being a separate people dedicated to fulfilling Hashem’s Torah, we fulfill our mission for being a holy nation.

This concept is expressed in Rashi on this very verse.

רש”י על ויקרא פרק כ פסוק כו

כו) ואבדל אתכם מן העמים להיות לי – אם אתם מובדלים מהם הרי אתם שלי ואם לאו הרי אתם של נבוכדנצר וחביריו

If you are separated from them, you are Mine, but if not, you belong to Nebuchadnezzar and his friends.

When we follow the laws of the Torah in a society that denies Hashem’s existence or is hostile to Hashem and everything He stands for, we create an awareness of Hashem in the world, thus sanctifying His name. Just as a soldier in uniform represents his country, so, too, a Jew in uniform represents Hashem. What is the Jew’s uniform? The mitzvot that instruct him how to act appropriately in every situation in life.

Sometimes, as I walk to Shul on Shabbat morning in the pouring rain without an umbrella, I wonder what the gentiles driving by in their cars are thinking. “Why is he walking in the rain? Doesn’t he have a car? And if he is walking, why doesn’t he use an umbrella? I guess there must be some rule against it!” We are creating a presence for Hashem in the world. This is called a “Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of Hashem’s name. This is our role as Hashem’s holy nation: To reflect holiness back to Hashem. “Be holy, because I am holy.” Show the world the holy way to live life. Live a life of morality. Live a life of peace between brothers. Live a life of good character, love and compassion, just like Hashem.

This is the secret to תקון עולם  – Tikun Olam – fixing the world, or אור לגוים  – being a light onto the nations. Just as in our children’s education we know that the only way to influence them is through example rather than through criticism and admonishment, so, too, the way we will fix the world by showing the noble path in life, is through modeling it and being the example of it to the world. Then, the holiness of our lifestyle will trickle down and slowly but surely make an impression.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin finds and interesting lesson in the words of this verse.

We begin the Shabbat with קידוש  – Kiddush, sanctification, of the holy day of Shabbat, and end with הבדלה  Havdalah – separation,  distinguishing between the holy Shabbat and the weekdays.

כו) וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי

26) You shall be holy for Me, for I Hashem am holy; and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.

Hashem says to us, “When the Jews make ‘kiddush’ I will make ‘havdalah’ and separate you from the nations of the world, and they will not bother you at all. But when the Jews do not make ‘kiddush’ because they have assimilated and no longer keep the Shabbat, then the nations of the world will make ‘havdalah’ and make the separation between you, through antisemitism.”

When the Jewish people keep the Torah’s laws and fulfill their mission as a holy nation, the nations of the world respect us as a holy nation and do not bother us. But when do not act like the holy nation, the nations of the world single us out and hold us to a count.

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