In the El Maleh Rachamim memorial prayer we say for the departed during Yizkor, and on Yom Hashoa and on Yom Hazikaron, we remember all the “holy and pure” souls that have left us. They have been divested of all the impurities that soil the souls of the living and are at peace.
But how to reach that state of holiness and grace during life – that is the question underlined in our second parsha today, Kedoshim – holy ones – where we are commanded to be holy because our God is holy.
Those who think that holiness is attained simply by donning a tallit and praying fervently for hours or adhering to all the minutiae of the mitzvoth between man and God without thought to those around us – are wrong. It doesn’t work that way.
The impression received by reviewing the 51mitzvoth appearing in this relatively short parsha is that someone wrote each mitzvah on an index card, dropped them all into a hat, then picked them out one by one at random, and wrote them down. We have a reprise of the Ten Commandments as well as dozens of economic laws intended to ensure that the weakest members of society are cared for, and social laws intended to ensure a just and well-coordinated society. These include paying a worker’s wages on time and repaying debts.
According to Hagit Bartov, we can learn three things from this hodgepodge of mitzvoth. One is that being holy in only one area won’t do the trick. Holiness is wholiness, whether we are dealing with friend, foe, family, God or ourselves. In this vein, Dr. Samuel Lebens notes at least four types of holiness: absolute (God), ritual (in ritual activities), legal (such as consecrating an animal to the priest), and personal (things to which we attach a feeling of “holiness”).
Second, it is the details that matter, in all aspects of life, at work, in social situations, at home, on Shabbat or on weekdays. And third, and most important, holiness lies in boundaries, adhering to limitations on actions and desires such as kosher and unkosher food. Many of the commandments refer to actions people may actually be tempted to perform, such as taking bribes or favoring the rich over the poor in court, or stealing or cheating. The commandments are intended to rein in these tendencies and overcome temptations to do them.
One of these temptations is the opportunity to perform an immoral or at the very least unkind act if we know we can get away with it. According to Professor Yuval Albashan, it is to counter such a propensity that the mitzvah “Do not curse a deaf person” appears in the parsha.
This mitzvah is totally logical and illogical. It’s ethically logical because you shouldn’t do something mean, even if the recipient does not know he is being offended. At the same time, it is illogical because the deaf person does not suffer. He cannot hear what is being said and cannot know that he is being denigrated. It’s not as though he is being shamed in public (which would be an act which is specifically prohibited!).
According to Albashan, this mitzvah is simply intended to educate those of us who have the power to curse the deaf, for example, and never be called to task for it – to avoid such actions. Just because you are capable of doing something by dint of your strength and/or the inability of the other party to prevent it, doesn’t mean you may or should do it. On the contrary, this is the true test of a person’s integrity, in his struggle against the lust for power that we all experience at one time or another.
Albashan also extrapolates the phenomenon to the economic and social scene. Just because company directors can take millions of shekels while their workers earn peanuts doesn’t mean they should, he says. Just because ministers have the power to allocate funds does not mean they should finance projects only for their party, depriving their “enemies” of a fair share (remember “Love your neighbor as yourself”!).
The principle sounds good but is totally divorced from reality. People in power use their power to further their own ends. That’s why they are there. If they didn’t have the drive to reach such positions, they wouldn’t have gotten there. So trying to apply these high-sounding ideas to politics is basically futile. A look at the political stage in many countries in the western world today is proof positive.
That leaves us, the populace at large. Some of the general ideas presented in the parsha are being implemented during this pandemic. We are more aware of others, because we can’t meet with them. Zoom meetings, classes and lectures allow us to see our friends and family and realize how much we miss them and how much we have to protect ourselves and others.
This doesn’t make us holy. It makes us humane, which is a good start, and as humane individuals we become more attentive to others and to their needs.
We seem to be on the road back to our normalcy, hopefully on a permanent basis. Let’s hope that some of the good will to others that has grown during this period of lockdown remains with us, and we come just a bit closer to the holiness and wholeness to which we aspire.