Holy Dos and Holy Don’ts (Kedoshim)
By Reb David
This week we enter Torah’s “heart,” the middle portion of Kedoshim (“Holiness”). Its familiar callings are timeless. We must be holy “for I, YHVH your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2), and love a neighbor as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18). As Rabbi Hillel famously said in Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the call to love others as ourselves – to love the holy Godspark within – is Torah’s very essence. So vital is this “Golden Rule” that we revisit it each Yom Kippur, as reminder and clarion call.
These are the heart chambers of Jewish spiritual life – to aspire to holiness in God’s name, and to love others as ourselves. Importantly, they appear together in this week’s “heart” of Torah. Also important is how the chambers of Torah’s heart are linked, with 16 sentences that reveal much about the path of holiness connecting them. This path begins (Lev. 19:2-18):
You will be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy. Revere [your parents] and keep My sabbaths: I YHVH am your God.
Do not turn to idols or make yourselves molten gods: I YHVH am your God. … When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to your field’s edges or gather all gleanings of your harvest. Do not pick your vineyard bare or gather fallen fruit of your vineyard: leave them for the poor and the stranger: I YHVH am your God.
Do not steal; do not deal deceitfully or falsely with each other. Do not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am YHVH. Do not defraud your fellow. Do not rob. A laborer’s wages must not remain with you until morning.
Do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind…. Do not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich, but judge your kin fairly. Do not deal basely with your neighbor. Do not profit by your fellow’s blood: I am YHVH.
Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart: reprove [them] but incur no guilt due to [them]. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am YHVH.
Observe how these instructions begin: we start with God, then we flow into the world through our families, then we root ourselves in Shabbat’s cycle of holy time. Divinity, family (both birth and chosen) and holy time represent levels of kedusha (holiness) – our essence, our source, and our physical lives. Observe, too, how these three foundations – be holy (like God), honor family (birth and chosen), and keep holy time – are phrased affirmatively. All three are what we do: they are holy doings that orient us in soul, place and time.
But the path of holiness is not limited to positive acts: the path of holiness leads also to restraints, what we don’t do. We don’t make idols, strip our fields bare, steal, deceive, swear falsely, defraud, rob, delay paying wages, insult the deaf, place stumbling blocks before the blind, render unfair decisions, play favorites, profit by others’ suffering, or hate. The path of holiness is a delicate balance of what we do and what we don’t.
What’s more, the path of holiness isn’t only about us as individuals: it leads into community. In ancient days, we left our fields partially unharvested so the poor could feed themselves. Fields belonged to not only the farmer but also the poor: our very sustenance was embedded in community. Likewise, Torah’s bans on theft, deception, false witness, fraud and corruption make sense only in community, as a code of behavior that shapes the world. We learn that the path of holiness is not a permissive feel-good spiritual high, but how we actually live in this earthly realm.
Holiness, then, is about both Holy Dos and Holy Don’ts, both self and community. We start with the aspiration to be holy, ideally bringing holiness into our experience of family and time, and then we ride that spiritual outflow to walk the earthly path of holy doing and not-doing in the world. This is the path connecting the chambers of the Jewish heart. Only when we travel that path, only when we live the holiness of this creed, can we reach Torah’s “heart” of hearts: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
During this first week after Passover, after re-living our liberation from bondage in Egypt (the “narrow place”), this week’s call to holiness has special significance. Liberation is for a purpose, and walking this path of holiness in the world – to be holy by loving others as ourselves – is the heart of that purpose. Let these be the songs of our hearts. Let these be the wise restraints that make us free.