Jewish Journal

Seeking Holiness

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

Posted on Apr. 26, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday!

Those lyrics, known for inspiring so many movements for justice and righteousness, are at the core of what I am thinking about these days. Is it truly possible to overcome?

From what great wellspring did this vision surge forth? In many ways, it came from the second half of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Kedoshim is a lofty and powerful parsha, known as the holiness code, which the Talmud and Midrash understood to be rav gufei Torah, or encompassing the majority of the Torah, namely that this chapter is a summation of the entire Torah itself.

"And God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to all of the children of Israel, saying to them, 'You shall be holy, for I, the Great Holy One am holy'" (Leviticus 19:1-2).

For one of the greatest statements that God lays upon us, it is really not clear from these words alone exactly what we are supposed to do. How should we be holy? What can we do to imitate You, God, in order to emulate Your holiness?

However, what is clear at the outset is that we cannot be fully holy alone as individuals, but rather we must seek this goal as a community. That is why the Hebrew is in the plural, kedoshim t'heyu, you (plural) shall be holy. Holiness is not something that can be fully realized alone.

Nor is holiness an easily defined concept. However, the verses that follow instruct us as to what God thinks holiness is all about. Some of the highlights are that we should care for the poor, leave the corners of our fields for the needy and the stranger, not withhold the wages of a laborer until morning and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.

Next come some of the most challenging words of the Torah, which tell us that we should not hate our brother or sister in our hearts, even as we must rebuke each other for wrongs committed; not take vengeance or bear a grudge, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Wow, is that a daunting task!

The great commentator Rashi understood holiness to be "separating oneself" from sexual immorality, and the precepts that follow the call to be holy often involve separating oneself in some way.

In a broader context, kedusha, holiness, can be about separating ourselves from the many forms of immorality that we face -- injustice, inequity, violence, ethnocentrism. The irony of kedusha is that while it sets one thing apart from another, the experience actually can serve to unify us.

As Martin Buber elucidated on this parsha, "God is the absolute authority over the world, because God is separate from it and transcends it, but God is not withdrawn from it. Israel must, in imitating God by being a holy nation, similarly not withdraw from the world of the nations, but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living."

That is why Jews have always been strong proponents of social justice, and that is why, thankfully, we continue to be leaders in the cause of righteousness and justice for all people, not just our own.

I love this parsha because it reminds me of what we should all be striving for and what it will take to truly overcome. When I am criticized for being "too political" in my sermons or divrei Torah, it is this parsha that strengthens me in the face of that criticism.

Overcoming disparities in health care is not political, it is holy; overcoming war, genocide, hatred and vengeance is not political, it is holy; fighting for economic justice or immigration reform is not political, it is holy; greening our world is not political, it is holy.

Love and compassion for the other, be they gay or straight; Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any religion; be they white, black or any race; male or female; young or old; rich or poor; Israeli or Palestinian -- love and compassion for the other is not political. This love is holy; it is how we emulate God's holiness, and it is taught to us directly in the Torah.

It is only as a community -- local, national and global -- that we can achieve these amazing goals; it is only as a plurality that we can overcome. When we wonder what needs to be done to make a world of our dreams, a world that some call the messianic time, we can look to this chapter of Torah for the first steps.

May the words of Kedoshim inspire each of us to live holy lives and find ways to imitate God by shining light and hope onto the dark corners of pain and suffering in our world. For the sake of our children, deep within my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive committee and is the social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; is chair of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom's Los Angeles chapter is and co-founder of an emerging group called Jews Against the War. He can be reached at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

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