D’Var Torah

Kedoshim, 5784 (May 11, 2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman

 “You should be holy because holy am I Hashem – Your G-d” (Leviticus 19:1)

     This dramatic command forms the opening words of our Parsha. It should certainly not be a surprise considering we read in Exodus, just before the revelation at Mt. Sinai:

“You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy people.” (Exodus 19:6). 

     Holiness seems to be central to the Torah’s vision for Jewish life. 

  • But, what does it really mean to be holy? Kadosh. We use this word over and over again in our davening, but rarely do we truly interrogate its meaning. 

So, this morning, this parsha of Kedoshim invites us to ask:

  • What does it mean to be holy?
  • And – Why would we want to be holy if this involves accepting on ourselves all sorts of restrictions and limitations on how we live our lives?

     Over and over again, the written Torah employs strong rhetoric to convey to us that the cost of not living a life of holiness is greater than the cost of what we give up in order to live within the Torah’s vision of holiness. 

  • This third and central book of the Torah Vayikra – or Leviticus – concludes with a prophecy which details all kinds of horrid punishments for our scorning of the mitzvot.
    • Tragically, over the course of Jewish history, even as we have endeavored to observe the Mitzvot, we have endured many such periods of suffering, exile, disease, hatred, war, hunger, and poverty. 

     This Biblical rhetoric of reward and punishment often does not strike contemporary people as persuasive. We look around our world and see ultra-rich gluttons who have profited from the mistreatment and others as well as far too many good, kind, loving people who suffer from illness, war, hunger and more. 

     So, the prospect of being rewarded in this world for our good choices – for our living a life of holiness – cannot be the main motivation for us. This is incoherent. 

     Rather, choosing to live a life of holiness should be about choosing to live “the good life” or “a life of goodness.” 

     In order to unpack this claim, let us turn to two of the classic commentators on the Torah who disagree with each other about how to understand this mitzvah of “Holy you should be”.

     Rashi explains this instruction by appealing to an earlier rabbinic Midrash which states:

כל מקום שאתה מוצא גדר ערוה אתה מוצא קדושה-

    In every place where you find a boundary of inappropriate sexual behavior, you find holiness.

     In other words, holiness emerges from boundaries. When we clearly keep away from harmful intimate behavior, we become “kadosh” holy.  This midrash picks up on the fact that the previous parsha concluded with a list of prohibited exploitative sexual relations. Our parsha, then, extends a similar logic from sexual relations to farming practices and business dealings. When you clearly define and delineate what kind of behavior is unacceptable, this engenders a sense of sanctity – of separateness – of Kedushah. This Kedushah is premised on our separation from any kind of exploitation of others, from our own relatives to strangers in the marketplace; from the animals we raise to the plants we cultivate. 

     This is how Rashi understands Kadosh to mean Parush – or separate.

     Nachmanides, however, explicitly disagrees with Rashi and stakes out a different claim, a claim which I personally believe reflects a stronger reading of the parsha. 

     Holiness is not simply separation from what is wrong, but separating ourselves from overconsumption of what is okay and even good. Holiness is not only about refraining from causing harm to others, it is also about protecting ourselves from the harm that can come through callousness and gluttony. 

     This is why we need an extra mitzvah to be holy. We are already commanded not to engage in incest, or to consume the blood of animal. However, these and all of the other prohibitions of the Torah are intended to cultivate within us a discipline that we can apply to the realm of the permitted. 

     Three examples which he brings are Wine, Meat, and Sex. Drinking wine, eating meat, and engaging in sexual relations, are all acts that are mandated by the Torah in certain circumstances. We use wine – though grape juice is also acceptable – to sanctify Shabbat and Holidays. In ancient times, eating from the meat of the sacrifices was imperative for a small team of priests everyday and for Israelites at least once a year on the night of Passover. And, to this day, Judaism understands there to be (at least for men) both a mitzvah to be “fruitful and multiply” through sexual reproduction as well as a mitzvah to bring sexual satisfaction to your spouse on a routine basis.

     So, wine, meat, and sex are all seen as not only tolerated, but mandated realms of pleasure within Jewish tradition. However, they all require caution because they can pull us towards an unhealthy way of relating to these aspects of life. One can rather easily become psychologically and physically dependent on wine, meat, or sex and doing so can then lead us to disregard the rather miraculous nature of each of these aspects of this world that G-d created. The cultivation and acting out of this discipline – this moderation – is the separation that Nachmanides understands to be “Kedushah” – holiness. 

     In other words, to be holy is to walk with your own personal set of limits – to move through the world with an awareness of your own boundaries that is cultivated through but not exclusive to the shared boundaries of Jewish community.  When we are deciding how to act, we are, of course, to ask ourselves:

  • Is this harmful to others?

Yet, we are also expected to ask ourselves: 

  • “Might this be harmful to me or otherwise lead me away from the path upon which I have chosen to walk?”

     Through this attitude and stance, we can connect to G-d – to Holiness – to Spirituality. G-d created the world through boundaries and limits – separating the day from night and the waters above from the waters below. 

     We live in this world that is characterized by the boundaries which distinguish ourselves from others. Though Kaballah sometimes refers begrudgingly to this plane of existence as Alma De Peiruda – the realm of separateness, the tradition also recognizes that this world of separatness is ultimately a great gift of G-d’s grace. 

     The boundaries and limitations of this world enable us to experience choice in our lives. Each day we choose how to interact with other human beings and how to relate to the plants, animals, and oh so many manufactured products that fill our world. This ability to choose is a blessing that enables us to choose holiness and through doing so to choose life – to choose to sanctify life. 

     In our day and age, we are surrounded by an excess of products which we are encouraged to consume without limit. Simply walking through the grocery store demands that we exert our own will as we see thousands of different fruits and products we could consume. When we think about the seemingly infinite number of products which are advertised to us on our phones and computers, the challenge of demonstrating discretion is amplified at least tenfold. 

     So, in a sense, the message of our parsha is more necessary today than ever. 

“You should be holy because holy is the Eternal Source of LIfe – Your G-d.”

     The way to live a good life in this world is to separate ourselves both from explicit harm and wrongdoing and from excess. As we do, we will experience growth, blessing, and connection to our Holy Everlasting Source of Life. 

Shabbat Shalom.