Parshat Kedoshim 2019
What does it take to be holy? For some people, like those we mourned last week on Yom Hashoah and those we will mourn this coming week on Yom Hazikaron (memorial day), holiness was thrust upon them by inexorable external forces. For the rest of us, holiness is in our hands. And the instruction manual for being holy begins here, in our parsha.
Actually, that’s not completely correct. Vayikra offers myriad instructions about holiness – but mainly for the priests – in addition to details about purity in body and food and carnal relations, which are prerequisites for holiness. But this parsha offers an innovation. It speaks to the entire congregation of the children of Israel and tells them, us, to be holy.
Our parsha offers about 50 mitzvot ranging from honoring father and mother, observing the Shabbat, not worshipping idols, leaving corners of your fields for the poor, not stealing or lying, not taking God’s name in vain, not ripping off your neighbor, not holding back your worker’s salary, not cursing the deaf or tripping up the blind, and that’s only in the first aliya!
The message of all these commandments that indiscriminately co-mingle the minor and the major is clear. Holiness is not something you don like your best suit or dress for Rosh Hashana. It’s something you live 24/7, or as much of that time as you can. That’s obvious. And that may also explain why these mitzvoth are thrown together like a bag of confetti.
The last few sentences of the parsha offer another rationale. “I am the Lord your God who separated you from the nations. And you shall differentiate between the pure animal and the impure, and between the pure bird and the impure, and you shall not make your souls detestable with animals and birds…which I have separated for you… And you shall be holy to me because I your God am holy, and I shall distinguish you from the nations to be mine.”
The operative word here is “distinguish,” separate, make us different. We have the Shabbat. We have foods we can and cannot eat. There are relations we cannot consummate. That makes sense. All these outward signs and symptoms are intended to separate ourselves from the rest of the nations. And this separation should also include treating others properly in business and livelihood and care and concern. We can make sure poor people are not left without a coat to keep them warm at night. Things small and large that show we care. And they are all important. As well the help we get from our enemies.
But for our people observance has always been easier said than done, and not only trying to be a mensch. Remember our ancestors’ annoying habit of embracing every temptation and possible transgression that came their way. Remember the women of Midian who tried and succeeded in seducing our men. Our spies who got cold feet and said that entering Canaan couldn’t be done. The whole book of Shoftim (Judges) is a litany of backsliding.
And that wasn’t that just going against the commandments between man and God. Not by a long shot. Once you throw away the bigger framework the smaller one is that much easier to ignore. The prophets spoke against the malpractices perpetrated on the masses by the rulers and the priests and the rich. If you want examples of what they did, pick up yesterday’s newspaper, change the names and the dates (and some anachronistic details) and you’ll see.
But with all this, we are still somehow different. If only because we are still here while bigger and stronger nations, even empires, have sunk like Browning’s Ozymandias into the dim dunes of history.
What has kept us going? Belief, a strong framework of rituals and traditions – some of which we chafe against today – and also a general concern for the wellbeing of our fellow co-religionists. We don’t always see it. Even when we see it we don’t always want to admit it but as a whole we have taken care of ours, our families, our community and our nation.
The victims we mourned and commemorated on Yom Hashoa, whether they went quietly to their deaths or put up resistance, embodied a whole world of Jewish learning and living. Rabbis and Talmud scholars perished along with those who had already cut their bonds with our people, and all those others in between. They were all considered Jews and paid the price.
Today, in other parts of the world, Jews still pay. What happened in Pittsburgh six months ago, last week in California and in Europe shows that the murder of Jews because they are Jews is never out of fashion.
Emerging from these tremendous losses we plunge ourselves into another type of mourning, this time for people who (for the most part) lost their lives trying to keep our country and us alive. Yom Hazikaron. These thousands represent the latest in the long list of militant fighters for our people that ranges back to David, Bar Kochva and others.
Both Torah learning and physical prowess are necessary for maintaining the continued existence – and vitality – of our people. Having mourned and indirectly thanked those whose holiness is reflected in the ultimate contribution they made to keeping us and our beliefs alive, we can enter the spirit of Yom Haatzmaut and celebrate our present and our future. As Rabbi Israel Goldstein shouted after the attack on his Chabad shul in Poway last week, “Am Yisrael Chai.” We, the people of Israel, live.
Shabbat Shalom, Yom Atzmaut Sameach