This week we will be reading from the double portion of Acharei Mot – Kedoshim. Kedoshim, which can be found right the middle of the Torah, is often referred to as the Holiness Code. This is in part because it begins with God stating to Moses and the whole Israelite community, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
There are two ways to read this aspirational phrase. The first one is that we will be holy because God is holy. This means by being in a relationship with God, we are declaring ourselves to be kadosh, separate and holy. This is probably related to the idea of Jews as the Chosen People.
But a better way to read it is: we can be holy because God is holy. This understanding is much more conditional. It is not our relationship with God that defines our holiness, but instead how we act on the themes of being kadosh.
The latter is more likely what was intended as much of the rest of Kedoshim is focused on the very mitzvot needed to set up a just and righteous society. Some of the rules may be archaic, but many of them still resonate to our modern ears. “You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another … you shall not commit robbery … you shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:10-14).
The emphasis we find in Kedoshim is on the central Jewish principle of ethical-monotheism. The idea being that we gain our ethics from One God as opposed to multiple gods, whose various forms of ethics could be in conflict with one another.
This is not to say that our tradition is the only source of ethics, but rather that our system tends to work for us. To paraphrase from the New Plaut Torah Commentary, such is the way of living when it comes to being in a state of holiness. If we want to be more holy like God, or even like the world we envision, we need to embody the just and righteous deeds that help to bring it about.
There is not anything inherently good or righteous about us over any other human beings or religious traditions. Or to put it another way, we are not holy because of God, we can only achieve holiness when we act in ways God wants to act.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
[As an aside, I will be departing for Israel on Sunday with many of your fellow congregants. We are looking forward to an amazing trip together, and I am hoping to post updates about our experiences. I will be returning Wednesday, May 9th].