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Rabbi Dr. Richard Allen. 

Living Judaism

Leviticus 19
The Holiness Code

— Rabbi Dr. Richard Allen

The most important portion of the Torah from the point of view of rapport between human beings and God; even human beings among themselves, is the portion that we read on Yom Kippur: Leviticus 19. This portion is often referred to as the "Holiness Code."

Since my teen years, this Parashah has struck me by its simplicity and, at the same time the great depth of its contents. If there were only one portion or one chapter of the Torah to be chosen as the single most important to be taught to our children, one portion to exemplify Jewish tradition and Jewish ethics, I would have chosen, as have many others, Leviticus 19. These are the words that begin the chapter: 

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community. 

It might seem that some words are superfluous. It could have been written: "Speak to the Israelites," or: "Speak to the children of Israel, or even: "Speak to the House of Israel."

But no! By this repetition, which might seem useless, the Torah has chosen to demonstrate that everyone was obliged to hear, to listen and understand. In addition, everyone was obliged to hear these words at the same time in order that there should be absolutely no confusion with respect to what God had said.

The importance, the imperative, of the content is indicated, so to say, by the rest of the verse: "You shall be holy In other words, being holy is not a choice! According to the Torah, one must be. It is a commandment. Then, so that the reader does not forget the manner in which the chapter is introduced, there are variations on this refrain: "Be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy." These variations appear regularly in the chapter.

It is not surprising that in a chapter thus entitled one should find commandments about those things that concern religious life at all! What is surprising is the emphasis upon those things that have to do with human relationships. The Torah leaves absolutely no doubt that holiness may be achieved by religious reverence alone. It is made clear, however, that holiness must be comprised also by a portion of the social contract. The theme, or refrain, "I am the Lord, your God," it appears, follows those commandments which, on the surface, at least, seem to fall into the category between human beings as opposed to between God and humanity. This theme is designed to demonstrate that commandments between human being and human being are, in reality, also between God and humanity.

Thus there are not two categories but only one category. That category is between God and humanity, which takes into consideration not only all, but also a sub-series, if I may call it that, of relationships between human beings. In other words, the manner in which I treat my fellow human beings is an indication of my rapport with God.

Despite the fact that one finds a repetition of some of the Ten Commandments in the contents of this chapter, one also finds the existence of commandments that are very simple and very down-to-earth. These take into account prohibitions against harboring a grudge, thoughts of taking vengeance upon someone and speaking ill or spreading gossip while chatting with another person.

Other prohibitions are so simple that one could say that they are self-evident. Must one be commanded not to speak ill of the deaf ?.or be commanded not to put an obstacle in the path of a blind person? The Torah also says: "You will not withhold the wages of a worker until the next morning." ?..and the Torah points out that he who commits such a sin must be reproached!

There are other citations in Kedoshim, which reinforce the notion that God is in the details. Nevertheless it must be remembered that the Torah was written by an agrarian society. The Torah speaks of vengeance, evildoing, grudges and foul play, but it also speaks of the ancient equivalents of the farms and homes of today.

Instead of regarding the above statement as a diminution of the rules and teachings in the Torah, it would be better that we understand that what I have said is again an effort to find God in the details. Let us recall the Viddui, the confession of sins on Yom Kippur, which, in its long list of wrongs, enumerates the great as well as the small errors we have made.

While most of us would not be guilty of taking vengeance, most of us, however, are capable of carrying a grudge or even things of a greater magnitude and guilty of those small wrongs and faults that happen every day. We are not going to commit murder nor are we going to steal or maim. Nevertheless? we will make the error of saying something in jest, insulting some one without wishing to; we will degrade and/or damage some one without knowing or without wishing to. It is our natural and human tendency, frailty, to dismiss lightly, acts which seemingly have no importance. 

If we respond to our neighbors in an agreeable manner, it is quite possible that they will respond to us in the same way. It is in this fashion, with this kind of rapport, this kind of communication, that a holy community is built.

Finally, Kedoshim teaches us that in Judaism, all things, the great and the small, are important. The tradition recognizes that a holy community is built little by little, act upon act, good deed upon good deed. The concept of lmitatio Dei means that we must, at the very least, think about what God expects of us. When we, in our turn, recognize that all of our actions, both great and small, toward our fellow human beings, are equally important, we will have begun to respond to the divine imperative: "Kedoshim Tih'yu, Be holy."

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