Hebraic Studies – Parashat Kedoshim

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Parashat Kedoshim

Study Two


Vayikra - Leviticus 19:1 - 20:27

With Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

There is something very special that occurs at the beginning of this Parsha and I am particularly fond of the story, for it is one of the greatest, although sadly not always acknowledged within the Jewish world.

Of course most commentaries about ‘Vayikra’ is mostly regarding sacrifices, purity, the Sanctuary, and of course the Priesthood. It is usually about the holy place, the holy offerings, the elite and Acharon -Aaron and his descendants who minister in the Sanctuary. However, in chapter 19, everything seems to open up and it embraces all the people.

“And spoke unto Moshe, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I your Elohim am holy” Vayikra - Leviticus 19:1-2 (JPS version of the Torah).

Indeed, this was the first and only time in ‘Vayikra that such an inclusive address is commanded by Elohim, blessed be He! There is no doubt that the content of this chapter was proclaimed by Moshe to a huge and formal gathering of the entire nation - ‘Hakhel. It is the people as a whole who are commanded to “be holy”, and not just the priests. It is life itself that is to be sanctified, and as the chapter goes on it makes that quiet clear. Holiness is to be made the norm in the way the nation will make their clothes and sow their plants its fields, especially in the manner justice is administered, workers are paid, and their businesses are conducted. The vulnerable - the deaf, the blind, the elderly, and the stranger, are to be well looked after and provided care and special protection. B’nei Yisrael as a whole is to be governed by love, without resentments or revenge!

What we witness here, in other words, is a radical democratisation of holiness. As we know, all ancient societies had priests. The Torah revealed four instances of non-Israelite priests: Malchizedek’, Avraham’s contemporary, described as a ‘Priest of Elohim Most High’; ‘Potiphera’, Yoseyf - Joseph’s father-in-law; and the Egyptian Priests as a whole, whose land Yoseyf - Joseph’s did not nationalise; and ‘Yitro’, Moshe’s father-in-law, a Midianite Priest. Thus, the priesthood was not unique to Israel. But here there was a code of holiness directed to the Priests and the people as a whole. Yes, we are all called on to be holy.

It should not come as a shock, for this comes as no surprise. For the idea, if not the details, I have already been hinting at. The most obvious instance came at the prelude to the great covenant-making ceremony at Mount Sinai when Elohim told Moshe to say to the people:

“Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” Shemot – Exodus 19:5-6 (JPS version of the Torah).

Meaning, a kingdom all of whose members are to be in some sense priests, and a nation that is in its entirety holy.

The first intimation is much earlier still, in the first chapter of Bereshit - Genesis, with its monumental assertion:

“And Elohim said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ … And Elohim created man in His own image, in the image of Elohim created He him; male and female created He them” Bereshit - Genesis 1:26–27 (JPS version of the Torah).

Of course what makes this declaration so revolutionary is not just that a human being could be in the image of Elohim. For of course that was also precisely how the kings of Mesopotamian States and the Pharaohs of Egypt were regarded. They were seen as the representatives, the living images of the gods. That is how they derived their authority. The Torah’s statement was not that some but all humans share this dignity. Regardless of class, colour, culture, or creed, we are all in the image and likeness of Elohim, blessed be He.

How time eventually changed, with the non-negotiable dignity of the human person, the idea of human rights, and eventually, the political and economic expressions of those ideas, liberal democracy on the one hand, and what became the free market on the other. These ideas were not fully formed in the minds of mankind during the period of biblical history. The truth is concept of human rights became a new product of the 17th century.

The irony is that these three texts – Bereshit - Genesis 1, Shemot - Exodus 19:6, and Vayikra - Leviticus 19 - are all spoken in the priestly voice Judaism calls Torat Kohanim. On the face of it, Priests were not egalitarian. They all came from a single tribe, the ‘Levites’, and from a single family within the tribe, that of Acharon - Aaron. To be sure, the Torah tells us that this was not Elohim’s original intention. Initially it was to have been the firstborns - those who were saved from the last of the Ten Plagues who were charged with special holiness as the ministers of Elohim. It was only after the sin of the Golden Calf, in which only the tribe of Levi did not participate, that the change was made. Even so, the priesthood would have been an elite, a role reserved specifically for firstborn males. So deep is the concept of equality written into monotheism that it emerges precisely from the priestly voice, from which we would least, expect it.

The reason is this: religion in the ancient world was, not accidentally but essentially a defence of hierarchy. With the development, first of agriculture, then of cities, what emerged were highly stratified societies with a ruler on top, surrounded by a royal court, beneath which was an administrative elite, and at the bottom an illiterate mass that was conscripted from time to time either as an army or as a labour force used in the construction of monumental buildings.

What kept the structure in place was an elaborate doctrine of a heavenly hierarchy whose origins were told in myth, whose most familiar natural symbol that was the sun, and whose architectural representation was the pyramid or ziggurat, being a massive building broad at the base and narrow at the top. Their gods had fought and established an order of dominance and submission. To rebel against the earthly hierarchy was to challenge reality itself. This belief was universal in the ancient world. Aristotle thought that some were born to rule, others to be ruled. Plato constructed a myth in his Republic in which class divisions existed because the gods had made some people with gold, some with silver, and others with bronze. This was the “noble lie” that had to be told if a society was to protect itself against dissent from within.

Monotheism removed the entire mythological basis of hierarchy. There is no order among the gods because there are no gods, as there is only the one, Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, the Creator of everything!

Some form of hierarchy will always exist: armies need commanders, films need directors, and orchestras, require conductors. But these are functional, not ontological. They are not a matter of birth. So it is all the more impressive to find the most egalitarian sentiments coming from the world of the Priest, whose religious role was a matter of birth.

The concept of equality we find in the Torah specifically and in Judaism generally is not an equality of wealth: Judaism is certainly not communism. Nor is it an equality of power: Judaism is not anarchy. It is fundamentally an equality of dignity. We are all equal citizens in the nation whose sovereign is Elohim, blessed be He. Hence the elaborate political and economic structure set out in Leviticus which is organised around the number seven, the sign of the Holy. Every seventh day is a Day of Rest. Every seventh year, the produce of the field belongs to all, Israelite servants are to be liberated, and debts released. Every fiftieth year, ancestral land is to be returned to its original owners. Thus the inequalities that are the inevitable result of freedom are mitigated. The logic of all these provisions is the priestly insight that Elohim, Creator of all, is the ultimate Owner of all:

“And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me. And in all the land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land” Vayikra – Leviticus 25:23-24 (JPS).

Elohim therefore has the right, not just the power, to set limits to inequality. No one should be robbed of dignity by total poverty, endless servitude, or unrelieved indebtedness.

What is truly remarkable however, is what happened after the biblical era and the destruction of the Second Temple. Faced with the loss of the entire infrastructure of the holy, the Temple, the Priests, and the Sacrificial system, Judaism translated the entire system of Avodah, worship in “Divine services”, which we do in our everyday lives both at home and at Shul (Synagogue). Thus in prayer, every Jew became a priest offering a sacrifice. In repentance, each became a High Priest, atoning for their sins and those of their people. Every Synagogue, in Israel or elsewhere, became a small fragment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Every table became an altar, every act of charity or hospitality, a kind of sacrifice.

Torah study, once the speciality of the priesthood, became the right and obligation of us all. Not everyone could wear the crown of Priesthood, but everyone could wear the crown of Torah. A mamzer talmid chacham, a Torah scholar of illegitimate birth, it is said, is greater than an am ha’aretz Kohen Gadol, an ignorant High Priest. Out of the devastating tragedy of the loss of the Temple, there was created a religious and social order that came closer to the ideal of the people as “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation” than had ever previously been realised. The seed had been planted long before the statement in Vayikra - Leviticus 19:2 …

“Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I your Elohim am holy”

Holiness belongs to all of us when we turn our lives into the service of Elohim, and society into a home for the Divine Presence. That is the moral life as lived by the kingdom of priests: a world where we aspire to come close to Elohim by coming close, in justice and love, to our fellow humans.

For those who have a yearning to learn more about the Torah and grow in being a good and faithful Jew, there are many valuable studies on Hebraic Studies enter the index below. If you have any questions you are welcome to email me.

And remember our motto seen on the logo at the top of this page: “The More Torah, the More Life”, for Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, is the one who gave us our Life!”

Rabbi Reuven Ben Avraham.


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