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Parashat Kedoshim 5776 — 05/14/2016

Parashat Kedoshim 5776 — 05/14/2016

Vayikra 19:1-20:27

In our Parashah R. Steinsaltz returns to the topic of holiness that he began discussing in parashat Vayikra. I should point out that these talks are collected from talks given over many years, so this “returning” to a topic is actually the editor’s choice. Nevertheless, parashat Kedoshim seems to be an obvious place to discuss kedusha / holiness. Now any discussion of holiness, which is, after all, the highest level to which human beings can strive, should be pretty abstract and ethereal. The Torah teaches us otherwise:

This holiness, however, has a surprising aspect. In books that deal with holiness, the deeper they delve into the concept, the more profound it becomes, to the point that it is designated as the loftiest value that exists. As the Maharal explains, holiness is that which is transcendent in its essence (Tiferet Yisrael 37). By contrast, the concept of holiness that arises from Parashat Kedoshim seems completely different.

The parasha begins, “Speak to the entire community of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Gd your Lord, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The commandment to be holy appears in the context of Gd’s holiness: You shall be holy as I am holy. But on the other hand, the commandments connected with this injunction do not appear to relate at all to the sort of transcendent holiness that the Maharal describes. Parashat Kedoshim is full of commandments, which include the prohibitions on stealing, lying, cheating, and so forth. At first glance, they do not appear to be special requirements or standards that an ordinary responsible person could not meet. On the whole, these are practices that are, more or less, commonly observed by the average person throughout the world, irrespective of religion or cultural background.

R. Steinsaltz goes on to point out that there seem to be two points of view from which to view holiness. One is the “heavenly” view, and the other is more “earthly.” He goes on to describe these two views. In short, the “heavenly” view is an ideal, whereas the “earthly” view is more adapted to the reality on the ground – and that reality changes as time goes on. For example, in the previous parashah, there is a list of incestuous relations from which we are exhorted to refrain. These relations are described in the most negative terms, as if to say that only the worst low-lifes would even think of doing such things. They are abominations no decent person could consider doing. This is the “heavenly” view – one wonders why Torah even mentions these things, it is so impossible to fathom these laws’ ever coming into play.

In our parashah, in Chapter 20, the same laws are repeated, along with the punishments to be exacted by the human court. R. Steinsaltz points out that here, if one refrains from committing these sins, he is called “holy.” Is that all holiness is, not being a low-life? Indeed, the thrust of parashat Kedoshim is a constant exhortation to be holy, but refraining from things that most people don’t do anyway! Isn’t being a holy person something more exalted than that?

Maybe it depends. It may depend on the person, and it may depend on the person’s social environment. Different people are on different levels of development, and face different challenges in life. They have different strengths and weaknesses, and we believe that Gd designs the challenges we face specifically to allow us to develop our individual souls to perfection. That means we all have different choices to make, and they may vary in degree of difficulty. What is very easy for one person may be quite difficult for another.

For example, when I was in college I used to love to eat BLT’s. After a while I stopped eating meat altogether, so not eating BLT’s was no longer a difficult choice. When I started keeping kosher, I was taking care of someone who was not Jewish, and who really loved bacon. All of a sudden, I developed an intense craving for BLT’s. When I would look in her refrigerator for something it was a real struggle not to stick a piece of crisp bacon in my mouth. A person who had kept kosher from birth would generally not have such a struggle – the piece of bacon looks like a piece of wood to him. Not eating bacon catalyzed a great deal of personal growth in me, while for our kosher-from-birth friend, it was just the way he lived.

The same situation exists on a social level. When a society is focused on spirituality, deviations from correct behavior are virtually unthinkable. To a society that is not over-sexualized like Western society, it indeed seems almost superfluous to list all the sexual transgressions in the Torah. Sadly, in a society like ours, they are all too necessary. If someone in another age refrained from incest or other forms of sexual abuse, he didn’t get any special kudos. It was what the society demanded, and perhaps more important, it was what the society supported. Since there was a level of support for proper action, choosing to act properly was not as great a struggle. In another time and place, where there isn’t such social support, it may be a tremendous struggle to refrain from sin. As we read in Pirke Avot (5:26): According to the effort/struggle/difficulty is the reward. Being a decent human being nowadays can get us much closer to holiness than it did in a perhaps less challenging time.

We believe that we are born into a specific place and a specific time for a specific reason. Our job on earth is to use whatever resources we are given to reach the goal of life – our individual lives and the life of the cosmos. That goal is to reflect as perfectly as possible the integrated, infinite value that lies at the basis of all life. This is truly a holy quest.

Haftarah: Yechezkel 22:1-16 (Sephardim read 20:2-20)

The connection between the parashah and the haftarah appears to be in the list of sexual transgressions committed by the Israelites in Yechezkel’s time; only some of the ones listed in the parashah are listed here, but undoubtedly the listing here is far from complete. I am writing this the day after the Iowa presidential caucuses, which I attended this year for the first time in 40 years of living here. Therefore my attention was caught by the following line:

Behold! the princes of Israel, every man was in you for his own power, for the sake of bloodshed. (22:6)

If anything describes the corrupt state of the US government, and US society in general, that is it. Everyone is on the take, virtually nobody is immune from the bribery and power-grabbing of the rich and powerful. Money is everything, social consequences be damned. A hedge fund manager can raise the price of a life-saving drug many thousands of percent. People will die, but he will get wealthy(ier). And of course it’s all perfectly legal, because the laws are carefully crafted to make it legal. This kind of business resulted in exile from the Land in our case. What it will result in for America one can only guess. However, if you remember how quickly everything started to crash around us in 2008, it should be obvious that our attempts to protect ourselves from disaster are flimsy indeed. If we really want to protect ourselves, and our planet I might add, we need to get out of the attitude that the material world, and our illusory power over it, is the be-all and end-all of life. We need to reconnect ourselves and our society to the Source of life in the unbounded, transcendental field. This is real t’shuvah, return to Gd. When we do this, life ceases to be a zero-sum game. We can start cooperating with one another and really create a Heaven on Earth.