Kedoshim. The first word of this past week’s Torah portion means holiness. Not individual holiness. It is a plural word, and it applies to all of us.
God tells Moses, “Say to the entire Jewish people, You, all of you, shall be holy, because I your God am holy.” Leviticus 19:1
It is an astounding declaration, in a section of Torah that is so central to Judaism that it is called the Holiness Code. And it doesn’t make sense. Because God is holy, we should be holy? What does that even mean?
Torah never clarifies this for us. Nor does it define what our pursuit of holiness has to do with God’s holiness. But it is extremely specific about how we should strive to be holy.
Feel free to read chapter 19 of Leviticus for the details. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: Treat everyone, everyone, with respect. Be fair. Be considerate. In essence, be a mensch.
That’s how to be holy. And it is not meant to be done alone. Remember, Kedoshim is a plural word.
Humans are social animals. We rely on each other for love, for encouragement, for support and assistance. We aren’t designed for solitary endeavors.
But my friends, we are designed to scale mountains, to rise above our limitations, and to achieve the impossible.
Take one look at Ukraine today and see the human spirit at work. No one had an inkling that the Ukrainians would pull together and fight so fiercely for their independence.
President Zelenskyy said this week to the Ukrainian people: “We must maintain maximum unity. Because our success depends on unity. Not only political success, but also the defense of the state, the strength of our people, our society.”
Mr. Zelenskyy understands that the key to fighting an unprovoked enemy is to put differences aside — race, religion, age, gender, politics— and embrace a shared mission with a shared identity: Brave Ukrainians.
Here at home we are facing a confluence of attacks, not as egregious as Russia’s physical attack, but dangerous attempts to infringe on our individual freedoms.
Books are being banned in our classrooms and school libraries. Teachers are threatened with discipline and even dismissal if they mention the word gay. Posters that promote coexistence are being ripped from classroom walls. These attempts to narrow the intellectual and social worlds of our children are intolerable.
Now we are facing an affront on women that in truth has nothing to do with reproduction and everything to do with controlling women’s bodies, minds, and freedoms.
Jewish tradition makes it clear that a woman’s life takes precedence over that of an incipient life within her. Not until the head emerges does the fetus achieve equal status as a human. This is accepted within all streams of Judaism, including orthodoxy.
Judaism is a religion and a way of life that stresses our responsibility to the community, not individualism. And yet, these affronts to our individual liberties are ones that strike at the heart of Jewish belief.
What do American Jews need to do about these attacks on our core beliefs? The Talmud provides a straightforward answer:
“Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended [ie punished] for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.” Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b:20.
In other words, we are required to speak out. To do as the Ukrainians have and put aside our differences, and together become Brave Supporters of Intellectual and Reproductive Freedoms.
“You shall be holy because I your God am holy.” Our task is to do what the God of the Bible did for us. To tell the pharaohs of this world that freedom of thought is as important as physical freedom, and that no one, no one, has the right to inflict their beliefs on another person’s body or mind.
The enigmatic statement linking our holiness to God’s now becomes clear: we are commanded to be more than holy. We are commanded to be God’s hands in the world.