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Parashat Vayikra 5776 — 03/19/2016

Parashat Vayikra 5776 — 03/19/2016

Vayikra 1:1-5:26

Much of the book Vayikra is called the “Holiness code,” and contains instructions, particularly for the kohanim, but also for every Jew, on how to be holy. After all, our calling is to be “a kingdom of kohanim and a holy people (goy kadosh).” What does it mean to be “holy” – either as an individual or as a people?

R. Steinsaltz writes:

It is important to stress that if the general common denominator in Leviticus is the theme of holiness, then the definition of holiness here is not exactly the definition we would expect. Holiness is not only what one does or does not do in the Temple, but something that applies even in places that have nothing at all to do with the ritual holiness of the Sanctuary or the Temple. It is a spiritual quality in its own right, beyond the kind of holiness described by the Maharal [R. Yehudah Loew of Prague, 1520-1609], for example, who speaks of holiness as the aspect of standing apart from everything or as a type of detachment (Tiferet Yisrael 11). Here, holiness diverges from the ritual sphere and takes on a different meaning: something special or unique. …

What all this adds up to is that holiness is a type of general refinement, perfection and exaltation, not necessarily limited to one particular point or area. …

The root of the word kadosh, holy is K-D-Sh, and has the meaning of separated out, or dedicated for a purpose. When a man betroths a woman in Jewish tradition she is m’kudeshet to him – that is, she is separated out of the population and special to him. We use this formula even today in a Jewish wedding, when the groom gives the bride a ring and says Harei at m’kudeshet li b’taba’at zo k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael / Behold, you are sanctified to me with this ring, according to the faith/tradition/knowledge/ritual of Moshe and Yisrael. Therefore, when Gd calls us a goy kadosh, He is setting us apart from the other nations for a special mission, a special responsibility (a quick glance at Jewish history will suffice to put paid to the notion that it is for special privilege!).

There is a famous Talmudic passage (“the baraita of R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir) which puts holiness almost at the pinnacle of spiritual development (Avodah Zarah 20b):

Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair said: Torah leads to carefulness (zehirut), carefulness leads to diligence (zerizut), diligence leads to cleanliness (nekiut), cleanliness leads to abstinence (perishut), abstinence leads to purity (taharah), purity leads to piety (hasidut), piety leads to humility (anavah), humility leads to fear of sin (yirat het), fear of sin leads to holiness (kedushah), holiness leads to the Holy Spirit (ruah hakodesh), and the Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead.

We see that holiness is pretty much on top of the ladder – above purity and piety, which are extremely high rungs, unlike our rather debased conceptions of what they might be. The famous work by R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal), Mesilat Yesharim (Way of the Upright) is based on an explication of the steps R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir lays out. It is a seminal work in Jewish thought and I highly recommend its study (a good elucidated translation, with fairly extensive explanatory notes, is available from Artscroll).

We see from R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir that holiness is the top rung that a human being can reach by his or her own efforts. In includes being careful to avoid sin, and it includes zealousness in performing right action (mitzvot), it even is beyond purity and piety (defined as a level in which we actively seek out ways to serve Gd out of our great love of Gd) and humility, which is self-abnegation before Gd’s great majesty. In fact, holiness seems to be a kind of transcendental otherness that sets the holy completely apart from the ordinary.

This separateness must be on the level of consciousness, for it is our experience that holy people are active in the world – in fact, generally they are very active and high achievers, Mother Teresa being an obvious example. What must be the quality of their consciousness? We have spoken about a level of consciousness that is wholly abstract, where the usual objects of our awareness are abstracted away, leaving the subject alone by itself. Since there are no objects of perception, there can be no sense of motion or activity. It is a realm of transcendental, silent awareness. This is, I believe, one level of holiness, for the awareness is whole – it is a unified state of awareness.

With repeated alternation between this transcendental awareness and ordinary activity, a state can be gained where the two states, the silent, transcendental state and the active state, can coexist in time. At this point, the person identifies his or her true Self with the inner silence, and the activity takes place almost on its own. This is a further level of separateness – the Self is separate from the activity of the mind and body. I believe this is a deeper level of holiness.

While further growth on the level of the mind does not seem to be possible, as the mind is already infinite, there is the possibility of growth on the level of the senses. Up till now, the mind, the observer, has become infinite, but the objects of perception have remained finite. As we become accustomed to operating on subtler and subtler levels of thought, we gradually begin to extend that ability to subtler and subtler levels of perception. A common example is a skilled psychologist. As he learns more and more about the working of the mind, he begins to be able to “read” people better, to infer what is going on inside by subtle clues in their speech or behavior. This can be extended to all areas of perception, and culminates in a state of awareness of the Unity of creation, of inside and outside, subject and object, in the field of infinity. Such a person is suffused with infinite love of Gd and of Gd’s creation – he loves his neighbor as himself, because he perceives his neighbor in terms of his own Self. This, I believe, is the pinnacle of holiness that a person can achieve. The Holiness Code of Leviticus is a path to achieve that exalted state.

Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23

Thus says Hashem, King and Redeemer of Israel, Hashem, master of legions: I am the first, and I am the last, and besides me there is no god. (44:6)

The prophet goes on to mock him who would cut down a tree, use half of it for fuel to bake bread and roast meat and warm himself, and make an idol out of the other half and bow down to it and call it god. Makes the contrast pretty stark! But consider the idea that Gd is “first and last.” While this verse goes on to say that there is no god besides Hashem, the Torah (Deut 4:35) says “there is nothing besides Him” (ayn od milvado). Gd is the infinite, abstract basis of creation, and there is certainly nothing, no “god,” with any independent power. But more than that, we can come to realize that Gd is the only real existence at all! I think this is the ultimate level of holiness that I described above – everything is perceived in terms of its infinite, fully abstract value. It is, as it were, Gd’s own substance, appearing to take different forms, but in reality never changing at all.

Parashat Zachor

Parashat Zachor is the second of the 4 “special parshiyot” in the weeks leading up to Pesach. The first was Parashat Shekalim, two weeks ago, right before Rosh Chodesh Adar (Adar II in this leap year). Parashat Zachor is read right before Purim. The Maftir is not the regular Maftir of the week’s parashah, but is the commandment to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites when they left Egypt. The Haftarah is the story (I Samuel 15:1-34) of Gd’s command to King Saul to eradicate Amalek, and his disastrously incomplete fulfillment of that command. His actions cost him the kingdom, but more to the point, he allowed Agag, the King of the Amalekites, to live, and Agag turned out to be the ancestor of Haman (“the Agagite”) – hence the connection to Purim.

Nonetheless, the command to extirpate completely the Amalekites is troubling to modern sensibilities. These people were certainly depraved people, attacking the Israelites out of pure hatred, and despite the fact that they were hopelessly outnumbered. There was no rational reason for the attack; it was just like the anti-Semitism we have seen throughout the ages – always an excuse, never any relationship to reality. R. Steinsaltz points out an interesting anomaly however. The law for an Edomite who converts to Judaism is that he or she may marry a born Jew only in the third generation (i.e. the grandchild of the original convert may marry anyone). Now (the original) Amalek was the grandson of Esau = Edom (son of Esau’s firstborn son, Eliphaz, by his concubine Timna), yet an Amalekite convert may marry a born Jew immediately! Apparently, being an “Amalekite” no longer indicates that one is a member of a specifically identifiable people, but it indicates a particular state of mind. That state of mind is one that is “at war” with Gd – that specifically tries to negate Gd’s presence in the world. Since the whole purpose of creation is to manifest Gd’s presence in the world, such a state of mind is incompatible with creation’s continued existence. Actually, one could also say that there’s a little bit of Amalek in each one of us – that part of us that insists that we are separate and independent of Gd, that we can do what we want without consequences. This we certainly need to eliminate!