TORAH TUESDAYS: ACHAREI MOT-KEDOSHIM
BY HENNIE BLACK
In this week’s Torah portion of Acharei mot-kedoshim, we look at the concept of holiness.
we are called upon to “be holy.”
but what exactly does that mean?
This week we have a double portion – Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, which are often read together and focus on sanctity and holiness.
In Kedoshim, we are introduced to many of the commandments – in fact 51 of them. The parsha begins with a powerful statement to the Jewish people: And G-d spoke to Moshe saying, “Speak to the entire assembly of the Jewish people and tell them, ‘You must be Holy, for I Hashem your G-d am Holy.’”(Vayikra 19: 1-2)
G-d asked for everyone—men, women and children—to be assembled before teaching this commandment. This was most unusual as typically G-d would teach Moshe, who in turn would teach Aaron and his sons, who in turn would teach the elders, who then taught the rest of the Jewish people.
Why the need to assemble the men, women and children to tell them to be holy? Is that a commandment? And what does it mean to be holy anyway? Our first clue into the meaning of holiness is the injunction to “be holy because G-d is holy.”
In what way is G-d holy? Just as G-d is merciful, G-d is compassionate, G-d is forgiving, so should we be. Being holy doesn’t necessarily mean to perform an act of holiness; it requires us to live a life of holiness. Our mission in life is to be as G-d like as possible.
How do the commentaries define holiness?
Rashi explains holiness as separateness. But separate from what? We know Judaism teaches us that we should connect to one another; community is vital, there is strength in numbers. So what does Rashi mean? Separate ourselves from something forbidden, including forbidden speech, forbidden actions, forbidden relationships. It does not mean to separate from other people. Holiness can only be achieved when we are with others.
Nachmanides explains holiness as separating from the excesses of what is permissible. He speaks of self-limitation and avoiding self-indulgence, using the example of gluttony, i.e. someone who has no restraint, eats all he/she wants, and enjoys all physical pleasures with no limits. “Be holy” means to restrain yourself even from what is permitted.
The commandment “be holy” sounds very lofty and spiritual but, interestingly, the Torah continues to list dozens of commandments and practical laws for all areas of life. The commandments include charity, Shabbat, morality, honesty in business etc.
Judaism is not a religion of separating oneself from society. It does not mandate isolating yourself on top of a mountain in order to achieve holiness. Holiness is about being a part of society, while simultaneously being a positive role model in that society. Holiness is not about abstinence, it is about elevating and transforming the world within our everyday, mundane life.
What we learn here is that holiness is not just found in the synagogue or in other similar institutional settings. Holiness also exists and may even be more crucial in the small moments of our everyday lives, such as how we react when someone cuts us off while we’re driving on the road or how we respond when someone gets ahead of us as we stand in line at the grocery store.
A person should bring about a sanctification of G-d’s name through one’s day-to-day actions. A life of holiness is acting as “a light unto the nations,” where one acts according to his/her moral standards and beliefs.
G-d required everyone to be present in order to emphasize that we are all capable of achieving this holiness. It is not restricted to certain individuals. This message was so important, it needed to be said to all the men, women and children to emphasize that although we must be separate, although we must refrain from certain behaviours, we must do so within family and community as part of our day-to-day life.