Friday, May 5, 2017

Why Holiness Isn't Boring

         I used to think that reading about holiness in Leviticus was rather 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 Leviticus19:2 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 writes that this is the only place in Leviticus where the term eda occurs in what he called a commission speech - a speech with instructions that are 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 goes 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, commandments that tell us how to behave in order to be holy – to keep Shabbat, to honor one’s parent, tonnot worship idols– are given to us as a group.  The verbs that are used are in the plural.
One might think that such important commandments would be addressed in the singular to one person at a time, or if in the plural, than to small groups of people, 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. One should note that those with singular verbs are specifically actions between people (bein adam l’chavero) whereas the actions with the plural verbs are related to actions that reflect on God (bein adam l’makom).
         In the commandment to be holy because our God is holy, the verb used 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 parasha brings us a little closer to figuring out how to do that – through inclusion and equality and the equal opportunity commission of mitzvot.

This dvar appears in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Washington Jewish Week. But it's based on a dvar I wrote years ago in Rabbinical School about holiness. I was prompted to revisit that dvar because of all the turmoil going on in the world today. Particularly in our country, in our government. 

I think it's important for us all to remember that we are put here to emulate the Awesome One Above through bringing acts of holiness into the world. Particularly in the face of insanity. And hopelessness. And craziness. It's the only way we can keep our own sanity and hope and integrity. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbah Arlene