Behavior can attain elusive holiness vital to understanding Torah


The Eternal spoke to Moses as follows: Speak to the entire community of the Israelites and say to them: “KEDOSHIM TIHEYU — Holy ones shall you be, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1-2)

So begins the second of the two Torah Portions which comprise the double reading for this week. The second selection, Leviticus chapters nineteen and twenty, is called Kedoshim (“Holy Ones”). This Sidra also forms the central part of that section of the Torah known as “The Holiness Code.”

Following the opening verses quoted at the beginning of this essay, a list of actions and attitudes indicates that Kedushah/holiness both are accessible to human beings and also are attained by human behavior. The Torah teaches that deeds which engender holiness are not confined to the realm of ritual. Indeed, interactions between and among people also make for holiness. Respect for parents and the elderly (Leviticus 19: 3, 32), honest dealings with others (19: 11-18, 20-22, 29, 35-36), and recognition of the rights of the poor and the stranger (19: 9-10, 33-34) are as important as cultic and religious rites (19: 2-8, 23-28, 30, 31). In the Holiness Code, ethical principles are co-mingled with sacerdotal prescriptions and proscriptions to chart the course to Kedushah.

In all these remarkable teachings perhaps the ones which refer to the dispossessed and the alien are most extraordinary — and most timely and instructive. As immigrants and immigration laws are discussed and debated in our country, we do well to recall these words of the Torah.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not cut all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your crops. Don’t pick your vineyards bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vines; leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Eternal your God.” (19: 9-10)

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, do not wrong him/her. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your homeborn; accept the stranger as one of your own, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, the Eternal, am your God.” (19: 33-34)

In commenting on Kedoshim, Rabbi Mosheh ben Nachman, the Ramban (or Nachmanides), wrote, “…we merit to cleave to God by being holy.”

Holiness is achieved through our behavior. Even in our stance toward folks who seem marginal to our society, holy is as holy does.

Rabbi Lane Steinger is director of the Midwest Council, Union of Reform Judaism.