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Torah Commentary
K'doshim (May 2, 2015)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

AFTER DEATH – HOLINESS… The title of this week’s combined reading evokes images of suicide bombers and ISIS terrorists! But it is through this dissonance that we both confront our own mortality and embrace our capacity to live on a higher moral plane.

These portions detail the rituals that defined early religious expression and only fell to disuse after the destruction of the Temple. But separation — always being the other, the outsider — will preserve the Israelites as distinct from other peoples. Indeed, the entire book of Leviticus (which is an imprecise translation of the Hebrew Vayikra, meaning “And he called”) outlines the ritual and moral laws that will separate the Israelites from the other people, eventually fulfilling the covenantal promise of becoming a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Acharei Mot begins by referencing the untimely death of Aaron’s sons, which we read about several weeks ago in Parashat Sh’mini (Leviticus 10). In the shadow of that tragedy, we are called upon to reflect on our own sense of mortality…and our lives. The intricate series of rigorous ritual practices High Priest is to perform in the Sanctuary follows. These practices are to be performed once a year — on the Day of Atonement…on the day we strive to access At-One-Ment…wholeness…unity…holiness. An ah-ha moment! Now the transition.

K’doshim opens with the statement, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” But what is holiness? How does a mortal overcome the human condition and achieve a state of holiness? And how can this newly liberated people, still not fully able to grasp its freedom, hope to achieve holiness?

The exquisiteness of K’doshim is that it translates the rituals we just learned about into human terms, into ethical behavior. Holiness, as the imitation of the Divine, is transformed from an abstract, distant concept to a regulative principal in the everyday lives of everyday people. The fundamental moral laws that serve as the backbone of Judaism are expressed here.

The parashah ends with a recapitulation of the opening, a promise and/or a command (depending on one’s theological perspective) — “You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord am holy” — plus the addendum, “And I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.”

I would argue it is not simply a coincidence that Leviticus is the third, central, book of the Torah and that these chapters are read shortly after we celebrate Passover, the festival of our redemption. Simply worshiping a god with a different name does not provide sufficient differentiation.

The rules and rituals are meant to link us into a civil, civilized and just society, while striving to achieve the vision of At-One-Ment with holiness. Leviticus may lack the grand sweeping generational epics of Genesis and Exodus; nor does it have the eloquent soliloquy of Deuteronomy or the adventure stories of Numbers. But, it should not be looked upon as irrelevant. I would argue that these guidelines are as relevant today as they were in biblical times.

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