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Judaism: A Wide-Ranging Torah Reading

"Rabbi Hiyya taught that this Parashah was said in the assembly [of the entire nation] because most of the Torah’s essentials are dependent upon it."
Published: Thursday, April 24, 2014 9:00 AM


Parashat Kedoshim begins and ends with holiness.

It opens with, “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the entire community of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy because I, Hashem your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

And it concludes with the admonition, “You shall be holy to Me, because I, Hashem, am holy; and I have separated you from the nations to be Mine. And any man or woman in whom there is witchcraft or divining from the dead will assuredly be put to death; they shall pelt them with stones, their blood being upon themselves” (ibid. 20:26-27).

Thus all the mitzvot in Parashat Kedoshim are bracketed between these twin admonitions that we be holy because Hashem our God is holy. According to the standard numbering (the Rambam, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, Mahara”m Chagiz, and others), Parashat Kedoshim contains fifty-one mitzvot – 13 positive and 38 negative; in fact there are far more, but many of them have already been enumerated earlier on in the Torah.

Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, 1913-1946) calls Parashat Kedoshim “a Manual of Moral Instruction”, and writes: “The precepts contained in this chapter may, at first sight, appear a medley of the spiritual and ceremonial – fundamental maxims and principles of justice and morality alongside of ritual laws and observances. The Torah, however, regards human life as an indivisible whole, and declines to exclude any phase thereof from its purview”.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of Parashat Kedoshim is the wide range of the subjects included in its overall admonition to “be holy”: the Torah segues seamlessly from honouring parents to keeping Shabbat, from worshipping G-d to leaving harvest-gleanings for the poor and the convert, from not stealing, lying, or taking revenge to not intermingling diverse species of animals or crops, from sanctifying certain fruits in the Land of Israel to G-d to not engaging in sorcery, from honest business practice to shunning idolatry to sexual morality.

Showing the immense importance of this passage, the Midrash tells us that “Rabbi Hiyya taught that this Parashah was said in the assembly [of the entire nation] because most of the Torah’s essentials are dependent upon it."

"Rabbi Levi said, because the Ten Commandments are included in it. [The first of the Ten Commandments is] ‘I am Hashem your G-d’ (Exodus 20:2) – and here it says ‘I am Hashem your G-d’ (Leviticus 19:4 et. al.). ‘You shall have no other gods’ (Exodus 20:3) – and here it says ‘molten gods you shall not make for yourself’ (Leviticus 19:4). ‘Do not take the Name of Hashem your G-d in vain’ (Exodus 20:7) – and here it says ‘Do not swear falsely in My Name’ (Leviticus 19:12). ‘Remember the Shabbat day’ (Exodus 20:8) – and here it says ‘And you shall keep My Shabbatot’ (Leviticus 19:3 and 30). ‘Honour your father and mother’ (Exodus 20:12) – and here it says ‘Each man shall fear his mother and father’ (Leviticus 19:3). ‘You shall not murder’ – and here it says ‘You shall not stand idly by your brother’s blood’ (Leviticus 19:16). ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20:13) – and here it says ‘The adulterer and adulteress shall surely be put to death’ (Leviticus 20:3). ‘You shall not steal’ (Exodus 20:13) – and here it says ‘You shall not steal’ (Leviticus 19:11). ‘You shall not bear false witness’ (Exodus 20:13) – and here it says ‘Do not walk around as a gossipmonger’ (Leviticus 19:16). ‘Do not covet’ (Exodus 20:14) – and here it says ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18)” (Vayikra Rabbah 24:5)."

Another Midrash similarly emphasises the centrality of this passage: “‘Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy’ – this teaches that this Parashah was said in the assembly [of the entire nation]. Why was it said in the assembly? – Because most of the Torah’s essentials are dependent upon it. ‘You shall be holy’ – by separating yourselves you will be holy, because I, Hashem, am holy. That is to say, if you shall sanctify yourselves, I will account it to you as though you had sanctified Me. But if you do not sanctify yourselves, I will account it to you as though you do not sanctify Me” (Sifra, Kedoshim 1).

The concluding words of the Mishnaic Tractate Sotah give us an insight into the subject of sanctification, of holiness. “Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair says: Alacrity leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity, and purity leads to abstinence, and abstinence leads to holiness, and holiness leads to humility, and humility leads to fear of sin, and fear of sin leads to chassidut (saintliness), and chassidut leads to Divine Inspiration, and Divine Inspiration leads to the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Resurrection of the Dead is wrought by Eliyahu (Elijah) – may he be remembered for good, amen” (Sotah 9:15).

So according to Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, holiness is one of the essential links in the chain which links alacrity with the final redemption and the Resurrection of the Dead.

This ever-ascending chain, from alacrity to the Resurrection of the Dead passing through holiness, recalls the forty-nine ascending stages through which we pass during the forty-nine days of counting the Omer, beginning on the second night of Pesach and concluding the day before Shavuot, in time to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.

And it is significant that the Mishnah we cited comes at the conclusion of a list of benefits which ceased from the world when the Holy Temple was destroyed, marking the beginning of exile, and when great people died: “When Yosi ben Yoezer of Tzereidah and Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem died, the grape-clusters [meaning the greatest of Torah-scholars] ceased… When the Sanhedrin [the supreme Rabbinic Court] ceased, song ceased in the places of rejoicing… When the earlier Prophets [meaning all the Prophets who preceded Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi] died, the Urim and Thummim were nullified… From the day that the [second] Holy Temple was destroyed, there has not been a single day without a curse, and the dew has not fallen for a blessing, and the flavour has been taken from fruits… When Rabbi Meir died, the tellers of parables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, the devoted perpetual studiers of Torah ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expounders of Torah ceased… When Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa died, people of [good] deeds ceased… When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai died, the splendour of wisdom ceased…” (Sotah 9:9-15).

The destruction of the Holy Temple, and the deaths of our greatest Sages and leaders, each marked the end of an era.

This Shabbat, the 26th of Nisan, is the anniversary of the death of Joshua (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 580:2), in the year 2516 (1244 B.C.E.), 3,258 years ago. Joshua’s death must have been terribly traumatic for the Children of Israel: they had left Egypt 68 years earlier led by Moshe, and at that formative stage of our nation’s earliest history, Joshua was already Moshe’s lieutenant.

Forty years later, in Moshe’s final days in this world, he several times charged Joshua to lead the nation into the Land of Israel after his impending death (Deuteronomy 1:38, 3:28, 31:1-8), publicly conferring his own undisputed leadership onto Joshua.

And indeed “Joshua was filled with the spirit of wisdom, because Moshe had laid his hands upon him, and the Children of Israel hearkened unto him” (34:9).

The day on which Joshua died, the 26th of Nisan, is the 11th day of the Omer. The Kabbalah ascribes seven middot (best rendered into English as “emotional attributes”) to the seven weeks of the Omer, and further ascribes the same seven middot to each of the seven days of each of those seven weeks.

These seven middot are:

Chessed (Loving-kindness); Gevurah (Might, connoting severity, in the sense of restraint); Tiferet (Beauty); Netzach (Eternity, related to Nitzachon, victory); Hod (Splendour); Yesod (Foundation); Malchut (Royalty).

Thus the first week of the Omer is dedicated to rectifying and improving Chessed in the world, the second week is dedicated to rectifying and improving Gevurah, the third week is dedicated to rectifying and improving Tiferet, and so forth.

Each day has its specific “attribute within the attribute”: the first day of the Omer is the day of Chessed she-be-Chessed (“Loving-kindness within Loving-kindness”); the second day is Gevurah she-be-Chessed (“Might within Loving-kindness”) – the day for rectifying and improving Loving-kindness as expressed with Might. The third day’s attribute is Tiferet she-be-Chessed (“Beauty within Loving-kindness”), and so forth throughout all forty-nine days of the Omer.

The attribute of eleventh day of the Omer, the fourth day of the second week of the Omer, the day on which we memorialise Joshua, is Netzach she-bi-Gevurah (“Eternity within Might”). As we noted, the word netzach (eternity) is a cognate of nitzachon (victory).

So the eleventh day of the Omer is dedicated to rectifying and improving Might as expressed through victory – surely the most appropriate of all attributes to dedicate to Joshua, the national leader who took over from Moshe and who led us into the Land of Israel and to subsequent victory over the Canaanite nations who had occupied the Land.

As Parashat Kedoshim shows us the path to holiness, so does the counting of the Omer raise us through forty-nine levels of ever-increasing holiness. “You shall be holy because I, Hashem your God, am holy”.