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You shall be holy

Thoughts on parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Menachem Mirski

Kedoshim tihiyu – You shall be holy (Leviticus 19:2) – thus begins parashat Kedoshim, the second of the two Torah portions for this week. What does it mean to be holy in Judaism? It means ve’yareta me’Elochecha – to fear God (Leviticus 19:14). The fear of God in Judaism is not something irrational. It means to have a sensitive and scrupulous heart and to be prudent in your actions, in order to do only good and to not do to another what we would not like to be done to yourself (Hillel, Talmud Shabbat 31a.) This applies both consciously and unconsciously. It also means to perform acts or refrain from other acts which are beyond the jurisdiction of an earthly court – where no witnesses exist and where the only judge is our conscience/God. It also means to act beyond the letter of the Jewish law (obviously without superseding it with a different law or having disregard towards it) because the halacha is calculated on the abilities of the average person. Thus, to be holy is to rise above what is required from us.

Interestingly, later, in the verse 14 of Leviticus 19, we encounter a certain, specific law regarding blind people:

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:14)

You shall not place a stumbling block before the blindthis law, in its literal sense, became one of the 613 commandments that are enumerated in our tradition. However, the Rabbis were troubled by its obviousness and the fact that it is a pretty low ethical requirement in the context of being holy! Therefore, this law must have additional, deeper meaning. They found this meaning by applying metaphorical understanding of the Hebrew word iver – blind: blind is an unknowing or ignorant person, or blind/ignorant only in certain situations. If we understand this commandment with this in mind it acquires a much more sublime and nuanced character and applies to a whole variety of situations, like those mentioned in the midrash Sifra:

Before the blind in a matter. Should he ask you: Is the daughter of so and so qualified to marry a priest? Do not answer him: Yes, she is qualified, when she is really unfit. If he comes to consult you, do not give him wrong advice. Do not say to him: Go out early when robbers would waylay him; go out at noon that he should get sunstroke. Do not say to him: Sell your field and buy yourself an ass and then by a trick take it from him.

Thus, our law on this deeper level prohibits not only putting unnecessary and dangerous obstacles before others but also any form of misleading them. It also prohibits using someone’s ignorance, naivety or lack of experience against this person. It particularly prohibits giving someone deliberately wrong or even reckless advice, including the one that would result in monetary loss.

I don’t think I need to give examples as each of us can find them in our own life. For my part, I would add that this law, in my opinion, would also prohibit deliberate provocation for purposes contrary to the interests of that person, or in layman’s terms – manipulation. People do it all the time, especially our politicians and other people who are active in public affairs, such as journalists.

Let us not adapt their standards and let us not mirror them or learn from them. Let us be mindful, thoughtful, caring and responsible for others, especially those who know less, perceive less and have less experience than we. Of course, no earthly court will accuse us of neglecting this, but our lif to be holy, which means to act beyond the jurisdiction of an earthly court.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA