Weekly Torah Commentary — Kedoshim/Shabbat Pesach Apr. 19, 2014

KEDOSHIM Leviticus 19-20 Exodus 12:21-51

This Shabbat falls during the festival of Passover and therefore, a specially chosen reading is heard in the synagogue service; i.e., the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. It is found in Exodus 12: 21-51 and I encourage you to read it during your quiet time.

However, for our purposes, I want to look at the Torah portion called Kedoshim which covers the 19th and 20th chapter of Leviticus. The opening words of the reading are an invitation that includes the entire congregation in a unique directive:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to all the congregation of the People of Israel, and say to them, ‘You shall be holy; for I, The Eternal and Almighty God, am holy. (Vayikra 19:1-2)

Since the customary “God spoke to Moshe, saying” is expanded with the words ‘speak to the entire congregation’, we can assume that the message about to be shared is of the utmost importance and concerns every child of Israel from the greatest to the least. The words that immediately follow are, “you shall be holy,” yet the Torah does not define holiness, or even tell us precisely what to do to achieve holiness.

Countless definitions of holiness — or what it means to be a holy person — have been offered through the centuries. One thing is absolutely certain: holiness is NOT a matter of perfectly executed external rituals, performed in rote fashion. G-d forbid! Rituals DO have their place as a way of expressing our love towards God – and towards others. Celebrating a family member’s birthday, for example, is a ‘ritual’. Giving your prospective bride an engagement ring is a ‘ritual’.

There’s nothing wrong with ritual correctly applied. There is EVERYTHING wrong with ritual when it is a substitute for personal relationship with the Receiver. In the classic work, THE WAYS OF THE TZADDIKIM, we read, “There is no form of Divine Service higher than serving God out of love.”

Holiness is all about the heart, the soul. Holiness is all about LOVE.

In the Shema, we repeat the commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources…” And in another place we are told, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

No one can achieve holiness in a vacuum. The Torah knows nothing of holiness outside of living in community with other people. How do we learn to love all men (‘your neighbor as yourself)? By giving of ourselves.

Perhaps one of the greatest exhortations to a life of holiness is found in a personal letter written by the Ramban (Rabbi Moss ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides) to his son, Nachman. The Ramban was born is Spain in the year 1195 and was one of Judaism’s greatest Sages. A prolific writer of classic texts on the Torah, at the age of 72, he settled in Israel, in the coastal city of Acco (Acre). We do not know the exact date on which he wrote this letter to his son, but we do know it was sent from Acco to Spain, where his son lived. To this day, these words are studied by thousands of Jews, eager to learn how to live a life of holiness. Here is a portion of the letter.

“…Accustom yourself to speak gently with all people for this will protect you from anger, a most serious character flaw…Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart. This sterling quality is the finest of all admirable traits…Through humility, the fear of God will intensify in your heart for you will always be aware of where you’ve come from and where you are destined to go…. When your actions display genuine humility…then the spirit of God’s presence will rest upon you…Let your words be spoken gently….let all men seem greater than you in your eyes. If another is more wise or wealthy than you, you must show him respect. And if he is poorer than you…consider that he may be more righteous than you are. If he sins, it may be through ignorance, while if you sin, it is deliberate for you should know better….In all your words, actions and thoughts — at all times — imagine that you are standing in the presence of the Holy One…”

This isn’t even the entire letter but there is more than enough in these excerpts to give us pause and to nourish our thoughts regarding our personal growth in holiness. The exhortations of the Ramban to his son regarding how he should behave towards others is simply a pattern for developing not only a love for other people, but that holiness which God has called all of us to achieve.

In Tune with Torah this week = As this week is devoted to meditating on the miraculous deliverance from slavery which our ancestors experienced, it behooves us to ponder our own condition. Are we ‘delivered’ from slavery to selfishness, to arrogance, to haughtiness? Or are we growing in our ability to love others as we love ourselves and to love God with all our heart, soul and resources?

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach (A Joyful Holiday of Passover)

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