Coming right after Passover, this Torah portion challenges us. We just celebrated our freedom from ancient slavery, and welcomed Elijah’s promised heralding of a great time to come. Now we resume the narrative of Israel’s trek toward the Promised Land. Moses continues teaching the people all the laws based on the revelation at Sinai. And here comes something really basic. “Be holy.” What is holiness?
The Hebrew word “kadosh” signifies something reserved, set aside, special. If it is set aside for a sacred purpose, it is accurately translated “holy.” So how are we to become holy? The first sentence of this week’s reading says “be holy because G-d is holy.” So we should follow the Divine example. “Imitatio Dei” is the Latin term for the same idea. But now comes a problem. The second sentence goes Into detail: “Each of you, revere your mother and your father.” How’s that again? Does G-d have parents?
Next, “Keep the Sabbath.” And a number of negative commandments, starting with “Do not practice idolatry,” and later, significantly, “Do not completely harvest your field, but leave a corner for the poor and the stranger.” The qualities of holiness begin to add up. “Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t deceive each other. And don’t swear falsely, profaning G-d’s name.” Prime clues to our character concern how we treat each other. “Don’t curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Consideration of this kind, say our rabbis, also applies beyond physical misdeeds, and includes economic or intellectual “tripping” someone who is less savvy.
How we dispense justice is a measure of holiness, says the Torah. “Don’t favor the poor, and don’t honor the ‘gadol‘ — the Big Shot, the aristocrat, but judge your fellow ‘b’tzedek‘– fairly.” Notice that the description of fair judgment uses “tzedek” the word for “righteousness.” The same Hebrew root-word “tz’dakah” also means “charity.” Tying concepts like these together helps to approach holiness.
“Don’t oppress the stranger…treat him like one of your own…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Keep honest weights and measures.” And one climactic sequence: “Do not be a talebearer among your people, and don’t stand idly by your neighbor’s blood. I am the L-rd. Don’t hate your brother in your heart; reprove your neighbor, but don’t bear sin because of him… Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The last of these principles gets quoted most often, and raises a question of its own. It seems to mandate equality. It assumes that you love yourself. Therefore if you lack self-respect, what value does your regard have for your neighbor?
Of course, the reading does not stop here. It goes on to define proper and invalid religious ceremonies. It also mandates penalties for violating Torah laws on family relations, dietary standards and sexual contacts.
We must conclude that this is not “imitatio Dei.” Whatever we may individually believe about G-d, we cannot imagine that He has any of these problems. So when the Torah says “be holy because G-d is holy,” what can we learn from it? Try this idea: G-d is described as “holy” in our tradition. G-d is beyond human understanding, but has revealed a way of life to Moses and our other teachers. To the extent that we can follow that way of life, we can attain some degree of that holiness. Not the kind of personality popularly derided as a “holy Joe,” (too often a synonym for hypocrite) but the upright, honest, fair, considerate and positive human being that we truly respect. We might not altogether reach that goal, but hey — isn’t it worth a try?