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Parashat Kedoshim

May 10, 2024
3 Iyyar 5784
Leviticus 19:1 - 20:27
18th day of the Omer

Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion Kedoshim, "Holy One" (Leviticus 19:1-20:27), is often referred to as the holiness code. The portion is filled with rules and regulations of all kinds. The thread that binds all of these laws together is the phrase we find at the beginning and at the end of the Torah portion: "You shall be holy, for I, your God, Adonai am holy" (Leviticus 19:2) and "You shall be holy to Me, for I, Adonai, am holy" (Leviticus 20:26).

Throughout the Torah, God’s presence is affirmed, but only at the beginning and the end of the Torah portion are we presented with the holiness of the Divine. At the end of the portion, after having a variety of ethical and behavioral laws put in front of us, we are once more reminded about holiness.

The concept of holiness is never clearly defined. Most dictionary definitions place it within a religious context, not giving us a way in to really grapple with the word. This week I asked my students what the word meant, and they could not give me a clear definition. They are not the only ones for whom the definition is not clear. Why should we care about what Kadosh - holiness - is? It is a concept that is embedded within our tradition but whose boundaries are not understood the same way by all. For some sages, the concept of holiness is all about separation. That which is holy is separate from the everyday, like much of the language we use around the ritual of Havdalah at the end of Shabbat. We separate the holiness of Shabbat from the everyday.

We are all commanded to be holy. Is it the same injunction for both men and women? Do we relate to it in the same way? Rabbi Elyse Goldstein writes “Why are we to be holy? Because God is holy." The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Obadiah Sforno notes that this verse teaches us that we are to remember and act “in the image of our Creator” as much as that is possible. Philosophers refer to this concept via the Latin term imitatio dei. We try to “imitate” the Divine. As God cares for the widow and orphan, so do we. As God rests on the seventh day, so do we. In imitating God, we can achieve a higher sense of purpose and our actions will reflect the ongoing concern of the Divine for the world. In imitating God’s holiness we make holiness our behavioral ideal.

The injunction to live consciously and to be fully aware of our actions has the capacity to aid us in approaching holiness in our daily lives. However, there is a traditional understanding that implies that holiness is primarily about the separation that I mentioned earlier. It is about distinctions.

For many of us, much of our lives are spent in making connections and creating inclusive environments; for us, doing so is holy. Is the holiness that we wish to achieve about separation or about connection? We come closest by recognizing the holiness of the moment of connection, even if the true nature of holiness is couched in mystery

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784