Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5781

21 April 2021 – 9 Iyyar 5781

Rabbi Yuval Keren

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim contains a section we often refer to as The Holiness Code. K’doshim. It provides us with a legal, ethical and ritual code of conduct. The code begins with: “God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy (kedoshim), for I, Adonai, your God, am Holy (kadosh).” (Leviticus 19:1-2)

The Hebrew word “Kadosh” is translated as “holy”, but it also means “distinct”, “separate” and “elevated”.

The following verse commanded us to keep the Sabbath holy. By making the seventh day holy we are also separating and elevating the day from the other,, more mundane, days of the week.

Yet, holiness does not only apply to the days of the week. It applies principally to people. “YOU SHALL be holy (קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ), for I, Adonai, your God, am holy.” The word תִּהְיוּ (You shall) stems from the Hebrew “to be”, and in this verse it appears in its future tense. It is therefore ‘You WILL be holy’ is a more accurate translation.

Why will you be holy? For I (אֲנִי), Adonai, your God, am holy. ‘אֲנִי’ translates into ‘I am’. The Torah refers to God’s holiness in the present tense.

This opening verse of the Holiness Code has something important to tell us about what it means to be KADOSH. The verse tells us that God is unique, separate and elevated from the world and God’s holiness is a constant presence in the world. All holiness stems from God, and everything in creation can assume this holiness of God.

However, the verse indicates that we are not automatically and constantly in the state of holiness. We can become holy if we commit ourselves and act according to Divine principles. We cannot consider ourselves as God’s holy people just because we are born into or accept Judaism or any other religion. We can become holy if we act holy.

The Holiness Code provides us with the actions we need to take in our journey towards holiness. We must respect other people. We need to support and ensure justice for the poor and the unfortunate in society. It is our duty to ensure that others in society have enough to eat, and lead a decent life. We must respect each other’s space and not steal from one another. We need to refrain from lying to and cheating others. We should refrain from taking cynical advantage of other peoples’ misfortune or disabilities. Justice should be exercised fairly, regardless of the individual’s social or monetary status. The list goes on.

Holiness is therefore a conditional state. Nothing can be given the status of holiness unless there is a holy action behind it. The land of Israel is holy if its inhabitants can find the courage to respect and care for one another. Sabbaths and festivals will be holy if we observe them, celebrate them and actively rest in them.

However, there is one great danger in doing just that. Our interpretation of these laws might become faulty if we forget about the rest of the world and think of these rules as applying to a selected group of people. We might decide that we should not care for the poor of another city, country or continent, because we are too busy caring for the poor in our own city.

We must therefore apply another important element when we explore our tradition of ethics. We must apply the test of common sense and reason to it. We cannot accept the sacred text of Torah as perfect, infallible and relevant for all times and in all situations.

One might say that reason on its own is sufficient to develop an ethical code of conduct. Why do we, therefore, need to refer to tradition? I would like to suggest that reason on its own is dangerous. If fundamentalism is the evil of the 21st Century then reason is the old evil carried over from the 20th Century. Using reason, we create powerful methods for harming and killing each other. We can find logical justifications for dismissing any ethical values we might have.

By using both religion and reason we can explore the ethical teachings of our tradition and apply them to our own time. We sometimes need to challenge tradition and decide whether it is relevant or acceptable in our times. We also need to challenge what is considered acceptable and reasonable in our time, and judge it through the prism of tradition.

By applying both tradition and reason we can bring ourselves nearer to the presence of God and to fulfilling God’s words to us at Sinai:

“Now, if you will obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you WILL be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

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