Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
What is the essence of Torah?
For generations, the sages argued and debated about which verses from the Hebrew Bible best summed up Judaism. Most people consider Hillel’s answer the best. Hillel famously turned to this week’s parasha, to the section known as the Holiness Code: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) However, Hillel did not quote the text as written, but rather framed it in the negative, teaching what we should not do: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a)
I love Hillel’s answer. Hillel’ statement acknowledges that love is a difficult emotion to scale. How can we truly love everyone if we love some people more than others? For that matter, how can we even measure our love to know if we are properly observing the commandment? Hillel brilliantly concretizes the commandment: treat others the way we want to be treated.
I love Hillel’s answer, but I don’t think that it sums up the entirety of Torah.
There are 613 commandments in the Torah, all of which fall into two categories: ethical commandments and religious commandments. When we focus on how we interact with each other, we enter the realm of ethics, so the ethical commandments are those which mediate our relationships with each other. Examples of ethical commandments include the commandments against murder, stealing and adultery. Similarly, the religious commandments mediate our relationships with God. The commandments to observe Shabbat and avoid idolatry are examples of religious commandments.
Hillel’s restatement of the Golden Rule encapsulates the essence of the ethical commandments, but does not address the religious commandments.
There is, however, another verse - also from the Holiness Code - that encapsulates both the religious and the ethical values of the entirety of Torah: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
Kadosh, the Hebrew word for ‘holy,’ literally means ‘set apart for God.’ Shabbat is holy, because it is set apart from the other six days of the week. The observance of both the religious and the ethical commandments together sets us apart for God. One without the other is insufficient. The Holiness Code itself demonstrates this through its structure: a series of successive stanzas which pair ethical and religious commandments together before ending with some variant of the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares a lovely insight about the commandment: “holiness is a developing condition, not a completed one. Only God is kadosh now.” (Voices of Torah, CCAR Press, p. 314) The essence of Torah, then, is our journey towards holiness, our sacred act of becoming.
All the rest is commentary; let us go and study …
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras