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Torah Commentary
K'doshim (May 14, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Holy Moses!

In this week’s Torah portion, K’doshim, God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites that they should behave themselves and try to be like Me.” Or is that really what God is saying? Can people really be like God? And exactly how should they behave?

At first, it seems simple enough. Leviticus 19 repeats some of the commandments that God first gave to Moses on Mount Sinai: Don’t worship idols; do honor your parents; do keep the Sabbath; don’t steal. After each paragraph is the statement, “I am your God.”

There are also a number of additions to the original commandments. The Hebrews are commanded to leave part of their harvest in the field for the poor to pick. They are warned not to insult the deaf or “place a stumbling block before the blind.” It makes sense: A group of former slaves is trying to organize itself into a civilized society, and they need guidance. They must be careful not to act to others the way the Egyptian taskmasters acted to them.

Much of this chapter is so humane that it still should constitute rules by which to live. I am all in favor of the verse that says: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:32) The older I get, the more I like that one — not that it does me much good on the crosstown bus at 3:30 in the afternoon on a school day. As I stand in front of the boy who is plugged into his iPhone or the girl shouting to a friend at the back of the bus, I wonder if they have grandmothers.

And then there’s my favorite rule: “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” We took that one very seriously in my family. What happens when you are out of the house all day and you remember, in the middle of a business meeting, that you forgot to leave the cleaning lady’s money on the desk? Or you are home but you are in another part of the house when she leaves and you go to the desk and find she has forgotten to take her money.

Common sense tells you that the lady is coming next week, and she knows you always pay her. So no problem, right? Wrong. In our house, it was a big problem. My father, a third generation Reform Jew, took this commandment literally. I remember him getting in his car and driving to the lady’s house to deliver the money in person. Later, when I lived in New York and the lady lived some distance from me, I scrambled frantically to track her down and find out how we could meet, so that I could give her what I owed her. Long after my father had died, his voice echoed in my head, “You must not deprive a laborer of his hire.” The translation he knew was slightly different, but the message was the same.

Not all of the chapter is applicable today. I don’t think we have to worry about listening to ghosts or inquiring of “familiar spirits.” Times have changed, and as Reform Jews, we have changed with them. But what is remarkable is how humane and applicable so many of these laws remain.

The message here is that we should treat covenants or contracts we make with others in the same manner as we do our covenant with God. Perhaps this is how we can be more holy, by keeping our word the same way we hope God will keep His. As humans, we never can be like God. But, we never can stop trying.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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