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JTS Torah Commentary

Parashat Aharei Mot/K'doshim 5766
Leviticus 16:1–20:27
May 6, 2006    8 Iyyar 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Felipe Goodman, Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom, Las Vegas, Nevada

One of the most beautiful yet most difficult to understand statements made by God in the entire Torah is contained in the opening verses of Parashat K'doshim : "K'doshim tihyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheihem [You shall be holy, for I, The Lord your God, am holy]." In a sense, this is one of the things that we as humans expect God to demand from us. To read the opening words of Parashat K'doshim produces no great shock or crisis in faith; on the contrary, it immediately makes us proud to know that God expects more from us than what we usually expect from ourselves.

What does it really mean to attain holiness? Beyond the clichés, beyond the obvious, what is it that God really expects from us? In trying to understand this verse, Nahmanides reacts to the detailed lists of forbidden actions that come right after the opening words of Parashat K'doshim , but comes to the conclusion that you can keep all the laws of kashrut and still be a glutton. You can drink only kosher wine and still be a drunkard. The term he uses to describe such a person is a naval bi–reshut ha–Torah, meaning, one who is self–indulgent but who justifies his or her conduct by claiming, perhaps sincerely, that he or she observes Jewish law as required with strict adherence.

Just like Nahmanides, Maimonides (Hilkhot De'ot, chapter 1) also believes that one can adhere to the letter of the law and still entirely miss what Judaism is all about. Maimonides reacted to the idea that one can be an observant Jew and at the same time be arrogant, insensitive, tactless, or dishonest. Such a person clearly would have a profound lack of understanding of what God is asking of us in becoming holy. Holiness cannot be found in blind adherence to halakhah without compassion, justice, or a deep understanding of God's creation.

One of the most beautiful midrashim ever enunciated by the Rabbis is found in the Talmud, where the question is asked: "What does it mean to follow The Lord your God?" The conclusion is that one can never possibly be able to follow God in the physical sense, but every single one of us must always strive to follow God's attributes: "Ela la'aloch achar midotav shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu." "Just like God clothes the naked so should you cloth the naked. Just like God visited the sick, so should you visit the sick. Just like God comforted those who mourned, so should you comfort the mourners. Just like God buried the dead so should you bury the dead" (Sotah 14a).

That midrash exemplifies what holiness means — and it is the same midrash that Maimonides used to explain his view of "K'doshim tihyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheihem." To us today, this midrash means that one should always strive to imitate God. It also means that we should never lose sight of what the past has been so that we know how to behave in the present and the future.

During the past months our country has been involved in a very interesting debate about immigration. This very week we saw hundreds of thousands of immigrants take to the streets pleading that the importance of their contribution to the workforce, the economy, and prosperity of our country not be trivialized. While the debate moves forward I have watched with both attention and pain of the silence of The Jewish community. Have we forgotten that we were once immigrants? Have we forgotten that God was the one who liberated us from slavery and oppression? For many of the immigrants in our country, oppression in their lands of birth comes in a variety of forms. For some it is hunger and social chaos, for others it is persecution for their political beliefs. Whatever shape or form oppression takes, we as Jews cannot turn a deaf ear to their plight.

God commands us not once but multiple times in the Torah to treat the stranger with dignity and compassion because we ourselves were strangers in a strange land. Remember the powerful words of this week's sedra: "K'doshim tihyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheihem." Becoming holy is not only about keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, or giving tzedakah. Becoming holy is about never ignoring the context in which God expects us to act. Holiness is not just what we do, but also the kind of people we are.

Maimonides and Nahmanides each in their own way believed that there are matters of great religious significance that lie beyond the bounds of precise legislation. They cannot be enumerated in terms of exact, exhaustive rules, because life does not obey exact, exhaustive rules. Holiness is not about fixed rules; it is about action, it is about trying to act in a Godly way. While watching this great debate on immigration from the sidelines, we need to ask ourselves what would others do if it were us who were in need of refuge? We unfortunately already know the answer. History has illustrated that there is no disposition for helping those who are living in desperation. They are victims not only of the circumstances that oppress them, but also of those who turn a deaf ear. God heard our plight, God came to our rescue, God acted in holiness — and so should we.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Felipe Goodman


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.