Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Kedoshim

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Parshat Kedoshim 2024


דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְדוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.

Certain singular phrases in the Torah have had a profound influence over the entire Jewish tradition and people, despite appearing only a single time in Scripture. For example, in this week’s parashah, Kedoshim, in Leviticus 19:18, we encounter the injunction to love one’s neighbor like ourselves (ואָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ). This has become such a central motif, that Rabbi Hillel the Elder formulated it as the Jewish Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation; go and learn it” (BT Shabbat 31a, trans. by D Kosak).

Rabbi Akiva, meanwhile, stated, “Love your neighbor as yourself, this is a great principle of the Torah” (ibid). A klal gadol, or great principle doesn’t just mean this is an important idea, it indicates that the principle is applied to and defines numerous other rules and behavioral norms in our tradition. Even though the Sages of old were loath to formally prioritize the commandments (once one does, it implicitly gives people permission to disregard many other important ethical injunctions), occasionally they still highlighted certain rules. As a consequence, the limits and additions to this rule are extensive. Nonetheless, this phrase strikes our hearts with a certain aesthetic “rightness.” We get it.

There is another mitzvah in this week’s Torah reading (Leviticus 19:2), which also appears only once in the Bible, yet is every bit as influential as loving our neighbors like ourselves: “You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy” (trans. by D. Kosak) Despite its importance, it is not as obvious to us as being nice to our neighbors. Being holy sounds a bit otherworldly, whereas our world is materialistic in outlook. Ethical injunctions make sense even to avowed atheists.

Yet holiness is perhaps even more important, such that ethical behavior depends on it: Given that,  it is worth exploring its meaning as well as how our classic commentators understood it. Because of the verses that precede it, Rashi opens our discussion by emphasizing its connection to our sexual ethics. But a great many other thinkers believe this is too restrictive. Ibn Ezra explains that:

The reason this chapter follows the one dealing with prohibited sexual relations is that the Israelites should not imagine that they would remain in the land by observing only the laws dealing with the prohibited sexual relations. God informs them that there are other commandments. If they do not observe them, they will be exiled from the land (H. Norman Strickman and Arthur M. Silver. Menorah Pub., 1988-2004).

Holiness, in other words, requires a more systematic approach to ethics. Often, we tend to focus on only one area of ethics to the detriment of others. Nachmanides (Ramban) elaborates, writing, “Be self-restraining….And in my opinion, this abstinence does not refer only to restraint from acts of immorality, as Rashi wrote, but it is rather the self-control mentioned throughout the Talmud” (trans by. Charles B. Chavel. Shilo Pub. House, 1971-1976).

Here Ramban pens a phrase, naval birshut haTorah; this is someone who follows the law but is still a scoundrel. Just because our behavior is legal doesn’t mean that our actions are ethical. Holiness here requires that we aspire to a higher standard of behavior than the literal meaning of a law. We must adhere to its spirit, which is easier said than done. According to the Talmud (BT Eruvin 54), Moses taught these rules of holiness four times. The first to hear this was Aaron; the second group were his sons, Nadav and Abihu. The third group were the elders, and the fourth group was everyone else.

Or HaChayim asks a pointed question. If these teachings are so important, shouldn’t Moses have repeated the lesson four times to everyone? After all, most of us learn best through repetition. According to the OrHaChayim:

Moses wanted to ensure true transmission of his words. Seeing that he taught each group of people separately, when they in turn discussed what they had learned they would be able to compare if each one remembered exactly the same. If the entire people had learned the same lesson from Moses four times in a row, there would not have been any way to compare any discrepancies due to someone’s faulty memory (Eliyahu Munk, Lambda Publishers, 1998).

This teaching is both profound and counter-intuitive; had we all heard this four times, we probably would have approached our personal ethics in a perfunctory, plug and play manner. This is exactly what many people do, yet doing the right thing in the real world is never straightforward, because every situation is unique. It requires discussion, comparison, and perhaps even argumentation to determine the best choice in a world of imperfect options. Surprisingly, self-restraint is a necessary part of this, because it puts a break on our worst behaviors as well as our tendency to jump to moral conclusions.

In today’s information-rich world, where everyone feels a bit overwhelmed, the ethics we want is “love your neighbor like yourself.” We desire something that is simple, clear, and inspiring. But in today’s complex world, the ethics we need is “Be holy.”