Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
The Talmudic rabbis play a game of wits where one says, ‘I can sum up the entire Torah in just seven verses.’ Then another does it in six, and so on all the way down to one. Hillel wins by restating the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you do not to others – all the rest is commentary.” The Golden Rule, which is to love your neighbor like yourself, comes from this week’s parasha (Lev. 19:18 for those who want to know).
Far be it from me to disagree with Hillel. Yet, if it were up to me, I would pick a different verse – also, it turns out, from, this week’s parashah:
“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” [Lev. 19:2]
This verse is the beginning of a short, incredibly powerful section of Torah called the Holiness Code. And for me, this verse more than any other captures the essence of what Torah teaches. Let’s break it down.
The first part of the verse specifies that this commandment must be spoken to the entire collective of Israel, not just the elders. The Midrashic collection known as Sifra notes that this formulation only occurs for the most important tenets of Torah. So, the first part of the verse exists only to tell us to pay special attention to the second part of the verse: “You shall be holy …”
The English word “holy” is one of those words we toss around like “justice” where we assume that we all agree on what it means, but when push comes to shove, we find difficult to define. The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh. Unlike its English counterpart, kadosh has a very particular meaning: set apart for God. Shabbat is holy, it is set apart from the other days of the week. Torah is holy, it is set apart from other books.
“You shall be holy” commands us to be set apart as well, just as God is set apart. “You shall be holy” means that we are to follow a higher authority, live to a higher standard rather than merely go along with the status quo. “You shall be holy” teaches us that we are capable of more than we think, it inspires us to lift ourselves above the fray and take the long view. It reminds us that we are capable of emulating our God and that our lives have purpose.
To be a Jew, Torah teaches, is to be holy – to be set apart for God.
On the one hand, nothing could be more uplifting.
On the other hand … oy.
We have suffered so much for being different. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof: “Thank you God for the great honor of choosing me, but once in a while, can't you choose someone else?” Yet, with all of our suffering, we have also brought much light into the world – and we are not done. This is what it means to be a Jew. This is what Torah teaches us we can and must be. How do we do it? The Holiness Code gives us a start with a series of pithy commandments like the Golden Rule. However, even that is not enough. We also need to read the rest of Torah, and then Tanakh [the Jewish bible], and then look to the rabbinic tradition.
Hillel was right: all the rest is commentary. Let’s 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