Man, as a Vessel of Holiness, is Never Alone
Rabbi Aviad Sanders is the Director of Career Development and Placement at the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL)
Parshat Kedoshim brings the relationship between God and man to a whole new level.
In previous portions the Torah told us that man was created in the image of God; that man was witness to Divine revelation; that man entered into an eternal covenant with God and received, in turn, an eternal expression of this covenant, relevant to all times.
However, from the moment of the Sin of the Golden Calf, and more notably in the Book of Vayikra, one cannot but feel that there is a shying away from the lofty ideas mentioned earlier. The Sin of the Golden Calf at Sinai elevated the status of the Levites, and more particularly the sons of Aharon, leaving the rest of the Israelites somewhat behind.
The Kohanim were the one who served in the sanctuary and wore special garments; the Levites performed special tasks; Moshe sets up his tent outside the main camp – all of these facts give a sense that the huge project that had begun with the creation of man in the image of God is slowly receding. Only a select few, an elite group, have retained their image of God.
The above sets the stage for the verses which appear at the beginning of our portion:
“And the Lord spoke unto Moshe saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”
God turns to all of Israel and commands them to be holy just as He is holy. It follows then that the connection between man and God has not been severed as we may have thought; God still belongs to any person who wishes to take on the challenge of holiness.
How is this challenge manifested? Later in the same chapter, we read of the following: the prohibition to spread gossip; the prohibition to hate another person and the prohibition to act in vengeance. We are also given a positive commandment of loving others: “And you shall love your neighbor like yourself.”
Furthermore, we are also commanded to take care of the elderly – “And you shall honor the face of the old man” – and to treat social minorities – gerim or foreign residents – with respect (since we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt).
Holiness is also expressed through man’s acknowledgement of the fact that he has no control over reality, nor ownership of his own body. Man must always remember that in every aspect of life, he is partner to God. Even the fruits of the trees he himself plants are not entirely his – he may not eat of these in the first few years of the tree’s life. He may not blemish his body in any way, harm his flesh or even leave a lasting mark on his skin because man is God’s partner in everything, and holiness is the manifestation of this partnership.
The message conveyed by Parshat Kedoshim is no less than jolting: every single Jew is called to conduct himself in his daily life as if he were a partner to God Himself. Yes, the individual is important; he carries the banner of holiness. This holiness is not only expressed in the awareness one has of this partnership with the Almighty, but also in the respect one shows others since they too were created in the image of God and, as such, are partners to God.
In fact, God did the same. He diminished His own Self and made room for us because He deemed us important. In much the same way that the Almighty made room for man, we express our holiness by making room for the other; for the person that is not me; for God Himself. In so doing, we acknowledge that we are not isolated entities.
This may very well be Judaism’s greatest lesson about human reality. In some respects, it is Judaism’s greatest gift to all of mankind: the recognition that man is a partner to God and, as such, man holds the banner of holiness.
When looking around, one often gets the feeling that the above notion has been forgotten. On the one hand, the world is full of people who try to impose their worldview on others with the aim of invalidating all other points of view. On the other hand, the world is filled with people who have despaired of others and believe in nobody. These people want to confine themselves to their small community, and are repulsed by anybody who doesn’t lead a way of life identical to theirs.
The western world, in many respects, is the central axis of an entire culture that advocates the idea that all identities, nations and any collective definition ought to be blurred for the reason that there is no one true definition for anything. In fact, this culture, having despaired of any absolute truth, promotes an absolute truth of its own – there is no absolute truth nor any specific identity.
On the other hand, we are currently witnessing a war between the western world and cultures who wish to reclaim their past glory, and the latter’s persistent fight against those who wish to prevent them from obtaining and re-experiencing this glory. In the name of this “glory of yore”, they are even willing to kill others or die themselves. So much so, that anybody who attempts to foil their ultimate plan is considered worthy of death; any culture that attempts to prevent them from reclaiming their long-lost glory must be wiped out and erased.
The concept of kedusha, holiness, comes to fill the space between these two polarities. Holiness, as a worldview, wants to make the world and our reality better, not by blurring identities or refusing to acknowledge others; rather, by constantly being aware that we are partners to God and must upkeep the covenant between man and God. Just as the covenant is eternal, so is the partnership; however, it is also dynamic and is manifest differently in every generation.
The laws of war, as expounded upon in the Torah, are very different from the laws of war in contemporary times. Today, nobody would fathom killing ‘every soul’, including women and children, when going out to a milchemet mitzvah – a war that is necessary for survival. This would result in a terrible desecration of God’s name and would undermine the covenant, if anything. Rabbi Herzog wrote that in times of war the Jewish nation cannot conduct itself in a way that would be considered unethical by other nations, if only for the reason that the State of Israel came into being because the other nations gave their consent. If Israel were to engage in any conduct considered to be unethical, during times of war, this would, by definition, lead to a desecration of God’s name in the eyes of the gentiles.
Notwithstanding the above, also in our own times, the laws of warfare are based on the same age-old principles: one calls out for peace and one tries to reach an agreement before going out to war. And if war is inevitable, one is guided by the following rules: guarding Israel from its enemies but maintaining holiness in one’s camp and being extra cautious about maintaining ethical behavior. The principles are the same as they have always been, but they are manifest differently, in a manner befitting our own times. This is the true essence of living in holiness – the ability to safeguard the partnership with God forever.
For too long, holiness as a way of life was practiced inside the home only – and not without just cause. We were in exile for many years; we did not have equal rights where we lived; nobody wished to listen to what we had to say.
However, in our times, it is our duty to start spreading the light of Torah and what it means to live in holiness. We must engage in Tikkun Olam constantly. “Be holy” is the commandment we are given in Parshat Kedoshim, and it is the means to making the world a better place and impacting reality. This, in turn, will also reinforce our internal holiness. Being holy and conducting ourselves accordingly is the ultimate mission of our people and our generation on the road to a better future.