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   by Jacob Solomon

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G-d said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and tell them, 'You shall be holy'" (19:1-2).

The actual meaning of, "You shall be holy", is disputed between the commentators. The Midrash (Lev. Rabbah 24:6), followed by Rashi, states that this commands the avoiding of the illicit physical relationships described in the previous chapter. Holiness is a product of refraining from sexual immorality. In contrast, the Ramban does not limit the concept of holiness to any category of precepts. Rather, holiness is something that should be characteristic of all aspects of life. A person who only observes the letter of the law may become a 'naval birshut ha-Torah' - a degenerate, debased person without actually breaking the Torah. Examples of characteristic behavior would include gross overeating of roast duck with the best, most 'glatt' hechsher, and a stamp collector offering a higher price for a very rare stamp when the other already agreed to sell it to someone else who had set his heart on it.

The problem with the first explanation is as follows. On the three occasions in this Parasha where one is commanded to be holy (supra, 20:7, and 20:26), it is in the actual context of observing G-d's laws and the prohibition of idol worship. The commandment of 'being holy' does not occur in the actual context of sexual relationships.

The second explanation - naval birshut ha-Torah - seems to be a very general injunction - which could apply to virtually anything, not just the laws enumerated here. What special characteristics have the laws of this Parasha that make them suitable to be headed with the principle of naval birshut ha-Torah?

In addition, the earlier part of the Parasha seems to be presented in an unusual order. After being ordered to 'be holy' the Israelites were commanded:

1. To respect parents - a Mitzva between Man and Man.

2. To observe the Sabbaths - a Mitzva between Man and G-d.

3. Not to worship idols - a Mitzva between Man and G-d.

4. To correctly observe the detailed Torah laws on offerings when bringing one to the Tabernacle/Temple - a Mitzva between Man and G-d.

5. To leave specified produce for those in need - a Mitzva between Man and Man.

6. A large number of laws respecting the lives, property occupations, and social well-being of others - culminating in "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18). These are MItzvot between Man and Man.

Thus after 'You shall be holy', the text opens with a precept between Man and Man. Later on, it also ends with precepts between Man and Man. These laws appear to promote natural justice and social well-being, and many of them are basic to the emergence of any civilized society from the law of the jungle. Why therefore are they interspersed with injunctions against Sabbath desecration, idolatry, and unsuitable methods of offering? What have they to do with encouraging a just and equitable social environment?

A possible interpretation of the very general commandment of 'You shall holy' is as follows. It is G-d saying to the Israelites, "You must make yourself Mine, because I have made Myself yours." This seems to fit into the word as used elsewhere. An offering is described as kadosh - holy - because it has been specified entirely for the service of G-d through the Temple - and nothing else. In later Hebrew that kadosh is also translated as a martyr - a person who 'made himself G-d's' through knowingly returning his own life to Him when the situation halachically demanded it.

Using this explanation gives a new perspective of the six points of the Parasha mentioned.

Yes, a person is required to respect and honor his parents: that is an extremely important precept reflected in the Torah's placing it within the Ten Commandments. However child-parent relationships must be within the framework of 'making oneself G-d's'. As the Talmud (Yevamot 6a) points out, the reason that parental respect and Sabbath observance are put together here is to teach that all Israelites - parents and children - are required to keep the Mitzvot - i.e. to 'become G-d's'. If for example a parent tells a child to break the Sabbath, he should not obey. One must respect one's parents, but strictly within the parameters of the Halacha. That Halacha is rooted in the third point… accepting G-d as the sole Creator and Divine Legislator. He indeed sees all that is going on - the laws of the offerings are only enforceable with the faith that He sees the finest minutiae of people's behavior: that He can distinguish between correct and incorrect deeds (19:6), and thoughts (19:7, Rashi ad loc.).

This gives a new perspective on human relationships. A person has to understand, 'As I belong to G-d, so does the other person belong to G-d.' He is not just 'another person' or 'some guy', but a person with genuine needs which must be cared for - reflected in the laws requiring specified produce to be left for those in need. The poor and destitute may indeed look poor and destitute, but accepting the teachings of the Almighty include internalizing the value that He created Man in His image (Gen. 9:5) - all mankind, that is…even those who look down-and-out and disreputable. With that outlook, the prohibitions of causing harm to someone without his knowledge (9:14-16) follow on naturally - even in areas where 'he will not be found out'. Becoming G-d's enforce these laws: He is watching even where the policeman isn't. And with that greater respect for Man at the top of G-d's pyramid of Creation, it becomes easier, through loving G-d, to 'love one's fellow Man as oneself'… (19:18)

And when one really internalizes that G-d is looking all the time, and indeed 'becomes G'ds', one would be too ashamed to act as a naval birshut ha-Torah…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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