I’d like to start today’s dvar Torah with a bit of a provocative riddle: What do a prostitute, Shabbat and a nazir (religious ascetic or monk) have in common?
[I knew that would get your attention that way..... Now follow along with me and I'll help you solve the riddle.]
This week we return to the regular schedule of Torah readings, picking up in the middle of the book of Leviticus, reading Parshat Kedoshim. Truth to be told, I think the first chapter, and especially the first two verses, of this parsha have had a very heavy influence on my Jewish identity and practice. I hope to share with you how and why this text has made such an indelible impact on me.
Parshat Kedoshim begins with the following commandment:
א) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר
1) And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם
2) Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be kadosh [holy]; for I the LORD your God am kadosh [holy]. (Leviticus 19:1-2)
But how does one fulfill the obligation to “be kadosh“? (I prefer to use the Hebrew term kadosh because I think it has a particular connotation which is unique, and different from its common English translation as “holy”.)
In previous Torah readings, especially within Leviticus, God has demanded that the people live as a “holy nation” or that they “sanctify themselves”. But often these pronouncements are made in relation to the offerings of sacrifices or other profound revelatory experiences. Here, in our parsha, the Torah continues to list a series of mitzvot that are to guide our human behaviour– how we treat one another– after being commanded to be kadosh.
This deepens our question of what it means to “be kadosh“. How is one to act in order to reach this status of kadosh? Is there something one must do or refrain from to achieve this designation? Is it dependent on elevating one’s relationship with people or becoming more pious and spiritually connected to the Almighty?
Nachmanides (1194-1270), one of the greatest Spanish Torah scholars as well as a doctor and staunch Zionist, interprets this command to be kadosh as follows:
“A person who is lustful finds an opportunity to sleep with his/her spouse a lot, and to be among the drunkards and gluttons, and who speak of all kinds of inappropriate acts, that are not mentioned as prohibitions in the Torah, then s/he will be a scoundrel within the domain of the Torah…
Therefore, the Torah writes, after it details the prohibitions that it explicitly forbids, and commands in a general sense to be distant from that which is permitted.”
(NOTE: This is my translation of Nachmanides’ commentary, but reading his words in the original is more authentic and much more poetic.)
Nachmanides suggests an interpretation of this text which seems counterintuitive upon first glance. After all, why is the Torah forbidding us from actions we are permitted to do?! For example, why must one distance one’s self from drinking kosher wine and kosher meat? Where is the harm in that?!
I think Nachmanides is suggesting one must be careful not to ‘take advantage of the system’ and abuse what the Torah grants us permission to enjoy in the world. To be kadosh, we are called upon to sanctify ourselves through that which is within our reach (according to Jewish law) and not just to follow these codes of conduct in their most literal meanings.
So even though one is allowed to eat kosher food endlessly, Nachmanides argues that one must approach an all-you-can-eat Kosher buffet with caution and restraint. This is what it means to be kadosh: to show self-discipline and live in moderation according to the Torah; to sanctify within the permitted. In a moment of temptation, if one is able to self monitor one’s desires and manage them carefully, one has performed the mitzvah of being kadosh.
Therefore, this week’s parsha contains within it a critical call to action: each of us must think of an area in our lives where we struggle to feel in control, like the way we speak with others or the kind and/or amount of food we consume. Inspired by Nachmanides, we are urged to take the reins of those fragile impulses and assume the throne (royal wedding reference) as masters of our actions.
I hope each of us is able to take on this challenge, especially as we prepare ourselves spiritually and physically during the period of the Counting of the Omer. Even if you have not been counting along until now, it is never too late to come on board and change for the better.
So, let’s take the plunge and find the “messy spots” in our interpersonal/ritual observance that we care deeply about, but that also need “cleaning up”. (Maybe our speech, business matters, prayer, respect for parents/teachers, Shabbat observance, eating habits, giving tzedakah and the like are possible areas of improvements.) Once we’ve zeroed in on ONE of these areas, let’s work toward infusing it with self-discipline, so that you can fulfill the mission to be kadosh!
P.S. Solution to the riddle: each of these words (nazir, zonah and Shabbat) are described as kadosh in some way. Why do you think this is so? Consider that the root of kadosh in Hebrew often means “separate or distant”.