The “Code of Holiness”

This week, following all the excitement of Passover, we turn to the section called K’doshim — the holy ones — and read a wide variety of teachings and laws.  All of them, whether sacrificial rites, legal principles, ritual practices or family standards, are calculated to make us holy people, just as the Divine lawgiver is holy. 

So what is a holy person?  Someone detached and aloof, too lofty to engage in any common human activity like marriage or business or labor?  A “holy Joe?”  Not in the Torah.  These chapters in Leviticus define holiness in very down-to-earth terms.  Take just a few. 

Each of us is told to “fear your mother and your father, and keep the Sabbath.”  And in the spirit of our agricultural ancestors, all of us are charged not to glean, but to “leave the corner of your field for the poor.”  In business, “do not steal or lie or deceive your fellowman… do not swear falsely by G-d’s name… and when you hire a day laborer, pay him that day, do not let his work stay with you until morning…”  These are hardly lofty or detached images. 

Our commentators have a great deal to say about them.  One of the most interesting interpretations is Rashi’s word about the very first of the above quotations.  He asks why, in the Ten Commandments, we are told to “honor your father and mother,” putting the father first; and here we are told to “fear your mother and your father,” putting the mother first.   Human nature, and specifically a child’s nature, provides the answer.  A child, says Rashi, tends to fear his father.  Maybe Rashi heard a frustrated mother threaten “wait till your father comes home!”  Traditionally the father wielded the punishment.  But the mother provided  nourishment and comfort, so the child would honor his mother.  Therefore the Torah balances the child’s experience with some wisdom: teach yourself to honor your father and fear your mother.   Then Rashi speculates on the sequence of respect for parents and keeping the Sabbath, all in the same sentence.  And he suggests that yes, we should respect our parents, but if your father tells you to break the Sabbath, don’t listen to him!  The Sabbath takes precedence even over parental authority.  In fact, we know that the only time we may — we must — break the Sabbath is to save a life.

Perhaps the most challenging of Torah terms is the concept of G-d-fearing.  Is our G-d some kind of supernatural ogre waiting to afflict us?  Of course not.  And this Sedrah gives us a beautiful definition of the concept.  “Do not curse the deaf, and before a blind man do not place a stumbling-block.  You shall fear your G-d.”  The deaf cannot hear your curses, but G-d does.  A blind pedestrian cannot see you trip him, but G-d can.  Again rabbinical interpretation extends the concept.  Tripping the blind can be both physical and mental.  Taking advantage of someone’s ignorance is equal to place that stumbling-block.  To which we might well add some variations on cursing the deaf — like gossip, slander, character destruction.  The victim might not hear you, but your own personality will be degraded just as will your victim’s reputation.

On the positive side, we have the shining principle: “in righteousness shall you judge your fellowman.”  Don’t favor the poor, and don’t grovel to the rich.  Do justice.

These are some of the qualities the Torah calls holy.  No monasteries.  No lonely oracles on distant mountains.  Just ordinary humans treating each other right.  What a great definition.      


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