Why holiness isn’t boring

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1-20:27

I used to think that reading about holiness in Leviticus was boring. That changed when I was able to reframe my relationship with the text after an in-depth study of the first few sentences of chapter 19, also known as the holiness code.
In Leviticus 19:2, God tells Moshe: “Speak to the whole Israelite community (kol adat) and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God am holy.”

So what’s unusual here? We’re used to God telling Moshe to speak to the people of Israel, but not to the whole Israelite community. That’s new. That’s inclusive — men, women and children — everyone is included in the term community.
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom wrote that this is the only place in Leviticus where the term eda occurs in what he called a commission speech — a speech with instructions to be heard by every responsible Israelite — and that’s enough to show its importance.

Other commission speeches containing eda (another form of adat) occur in two places in Exodus: one regarding the preparation of the paschal sacrifice (Exodus 12:3) and another for assembling the building materials for the tabernacle (Exodus 35:1).

Milgrom went on to say that the word eda  “unambiguously means the entire people Israel. … Its unique placement here underscores the importance of the prescriptions that follow: they are quintessentially the means by which Israel can become a holy nation.”

The verse continues: “… and you, Moshe, will say to them you [second person plural] shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God, am holy.”

So why are we to be holy? Because God is holy. Yes, but what does that mean? We already know that the command to holiness for the people Israel is an inclusive one because it is being given to everyone. And the commandments that come after, telling us how to behave in order to be holy: to keep Shabbat, to honor one’s parent, to not worship idols — are given to us as a group.

The verbs used are in the plural.

One might think that such important commandments would be addressed in the singular to one person at a time, not to everyone all at once. Research suggests that the commandments are written this way to show that any Jew can attain the highest principles of Judaism, can observe the mitzvot and strive for daily holiness — that’s nicely egalitarian.

There are commandments that do use singualar verbs. They refer to actions between people, whereas the actions with the plural verbs reflect on God.

In the commandment to be holy because our God is holy, the verb the Torah uses is t’hiyu, which means, “You [in the plural] will be.”

“One way to emulate God is to be holy like God. How? We act in holy ways by fulfilling mitzvot that encourage godliness to the world. Our parsha brings us a little closer to figuring out how to do that — through inclusion and equality and the equal opportunity commission of mitzvot. n

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila and chaplain of the Riderwood Jewish Community in Silver Spring.

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