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27.04.2020 20:01    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  vayikra  hacharemot  kedoshim vayetze  

"You shall be holy"

"You shall be holy" (Lev. 19:2)—this obligation of sanctity was imposed on the Israelites from the outset of the Theophany at Mount Sinai, in preparation for their entering a covenant with the Lord:  "But you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6).  What is this holiness and how is it achieved?  Our ancestors understood the verb k-d-sh as signifying uniqueness and distinction, in line with what is said in Leviticus Rabbah (24:4):  "The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, 'Go and say to the Israelites:  As I am separate so you be separate; as I am holy, so be you holy.'"  In other words, holiness has to do with being separate, and perhaps separating oneself leads to holiness.  This understanding apparently stems from the biblical usage of the expression kedeshah (female cult prostitute; Gen. 38:21; 22; Deut. 23:18, Hos. 4:14) and kadesh (male cult prostitute; Deut. 23:18, I Kings 14:24, 15:12, II Kings 24:7), which according to the Sages refers to those engaged in an unconventional occupation, separated from the general public, namely prostitution.  We learn from modern studies of the ancient Middle East that these kedeshim and kedeshot served in temples dedicated to idolatry, some of them even engaging in cultic prostitution.[2] Be that as it may, modern commentaries abandoned the notion of setting apart and separating found in the root k-d-sh, and understood this root as follows from the verse cited above:  a religious matter pertaining to Divinity—in pagan mythological religions, such as the Ugaritic faith, a word applied to gods[3] in the pantheon; and, in contradistinction, in the faith of Israel, a word applied to the qualities of Divinity as a whole.

In Maimonides' theory of negative attributes[4] he maintains that one cannot describe G-d in terms of human qualities, and certainly not in terms of human language.  This inability to describe G-d has been noted by the Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 33b):  "A certain [reader] went down in the presence of R. Hanina and said, 'O G-d, the great, mighty, terrible, majestic, powerful, awful, strong, fearless, sure and honored.'  He [R. Hanina] waited till he had finished, and when he had finished he said to him, 'Have you concluded all the praise of your Master?  Why do we want all this?'"  In Midrash Tehillim (19:2) Rav Huna cites Rav, who, quoting the verse from Job, "Shaddai—we cannot attain to Him; He is great in power," concluded, "we cannot attain to the mighty greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He."  Near this homily is another:  "Jacob of Kefar Nevoraia in Tyre translated the verse, 'Silence is praise for You' (Ps. 65:2), saying that silence is a precious treasure; just as anything one might say about a diamond of inestimable value does not do it justice."

The sum total of the attributes of the Deity, or better put, its essence, which cannot be conceived or understood in human concepts—this is what Scripture calls "holy" or kadosh. Thus holiness is G-d Himself, and He confers of His holiness to other things, i.e. sanctifies things that pertain to Him:  units of space and time, e.g. places[5] and times[6] that the Lord sets aside for us to worship Him in them; the imagery of a heavenly entourage[7] and of angels that intercede between the worlds;[8] human beings who are set aside to worship the Lord, be it objectively, such as the priests,[9] levites[10] and prophets,[11] or be it subjectively, as in the case  of those G-d-fearing individuals who of their own free will devote themselves to sacred service.[12]

"You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy"—this complex statement can be understood in two ways:  1)  As a causative statement:  Since I have brought you, Israel, near to Me, try to grasp something of My characteristics, insofar as that is humanly feasible; 2) As a cyclical statement, as exposited in the tannaitic midrashic work, Sifra, at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim:  "Abba Saul says:  What ought the entourage of a king to be?  Something which imitates the qualities of the king," or as the Torah puts it, "walking in all His ways, and holding fast to Him" (Deut. 11:22).

The requirement that we walk in the Lord's ways, i.e. that we adhere to the ways of His holiness, can also be understood in two ways:  1)  "follow only the path that the Lord your G-d has enjoined upon you" (Deut. 5:30), on which meaning this week's reading rests, beginning with the words, "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy," and concluding with, "You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy" (Lev. 20:26), between which are gathered a group of commandments pertaining to various walks of life and comprising the way in which we can become holy and approach the holiness of the Lord.  The other understanding of statements about walking in the ways of G-d[13] is that we should follow His ways in the sense of imitating the behavior shown us by G-d.[14] That is how the Sages interpreted Deuteronomy 10:12, "to walk only in His paths":

What are the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He?...Just as the Omnipresent is called merciful and forgiving, so you should be merciful and forgiving, giving freely to all.  Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called beneficent, as it is written, "The Lord is beneficent in all His ways and faithful in all His works" (Ps. 145:17), so, too, you should be beneficent…and faithful.  (Sifre Deuteronomy 49)

This reading of "walking in the ways of G-d" might appear a homiletic interpretation, but at least in one instance it is the plain sense of the text:  when, long before the giving of the Torah and the commandments, the Lord refers to Abraham and his progeny as keeping "the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right" (Gen. 18:19).  Shortly thereafter G-d illustrates to Abraham the Lord's way of doing justice, in the discussion between Him and Abraham regarding the judgment passed against the wicked city of Sodom (Gen. 20:32).

How is the sanctity that brings us close to the Creator to be achieved?  Not in hermitic isolation, withdrawing from the ways of the world, as is advocated by religions whose main concern is with the life of the soul or the World to Come.  The sanctity in this week's reading extends to all walks of life and necessarily sanctifies them, for the Creator took us out of Egypt in order to give us the land of Canaan to be fruitful and multiply there.  Necessarily there are commandments and proscriptions that deal with family and intimate relations, with agriculture and commerce, with government and war.  However, within these realms of blessed holy activity the Lord set aside special sanctified places for contemplation and utter devotion to that which is holy, points at which we abstain from our ongoing activities:  the Sabbath and festivals in the dimension of time, and the Sanctuary and its sacred precincts in the dimension of space, as it is written:  "You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary:  I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:30).

There have been thinkers[15] in the modern era who take as their point of departure the earthly actions through which human beings sanctify themselves and extend this back to the sanctity of the Creator:  this is not the "philosopher's G-d"[16] who sits loftily above the world and does not intervene in the actions of His creatures, but a provident G-d who watches over His world and acts in it.  Clearly such a view raises the theological difficulty that if the Deity is perfection, there can be no changing either in Him or in His deeds.  Perfection is a uniform and stable state.  However, even such perfection is but a concept formulated in the minds of human beings, and the Lord is above all human conception, even that of philosophers.

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