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I had some thoughts on the opening lines of Kedoshim. They go as follows: “יהוה spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy.” The question I was struck with is what is holiness? Does holiness exist as a force unto itself, or does it exist only as a property of something else. In other words, the question I was asking myself is “holy” an adjective or a noun? Just looking simply at the verse, we see that it is an adjective. This leads me to believe that it is not something that exists unto itself but rather a property of things which do exist unto themselves. The Torah, throughout its five books, seems to present holiness as a sort of separateness, a set-apart-ness, a specialness. In fact, the Torah presents holiness as something which humans can create by designating things separate and special. Humans choose to designate the utensils in the Tabernacle as separate and consecrated unto God, and thus they are holy. Scholars agree: they say the word “holy” can hide the fact that the Hebrew word, kadosh, is really all about separateness and specialness. That separateness and set-aside-ness can certainly apply to religious things which are set aside for God, like the utensils of the tabernacle or the priests themselves, but the word does not fundamentally describe things that are consecrated to God. Israel is often described as holy. Israel is set apart, it is to be special among the nations, consecrated (dedicated in service) to God. Israel is called a nation of priests - Israel is dedicated to God’s service just like the priests. Still, though, this does not explain our passage. How can God be holy? How can God be separate and set apart? To answer that question, I believe we must look at the context of the verse. God tells Moses to “Speak to the whole Israelite community . . . “ This is not a usual arrangement. Normally, God tells Moses a law, which Moses in turn is to tell to the Israelites, though not as an entire community. Here, the commentators understand, Moses is to somehow gather the entire camp. Presumably, Moses is to gather them to the Tabernacle, because that is where God speaks to him from and is the center of the camp, the natural place of congregation. It is also important to keep in mind events which preceded this gathering of the entire community - the death of Aaron’s sons for trespassing into God’s sanctuary, the Tabernacle, when they were not supposed to. The idea of God having a clear, set-apart, designated, and special area is fresh in the minds of the people, and now they are gathered around that place. Furthermore, the Hebrew word which designates “the whole Israelite community” is adat. This word is related to the word for witness and testimony, sharing the same root. It is used in other places to refer to the Israelite community, and I understand it as saying all of the people are gathered to collectively witness something. Now, there is a connection with the tablets of the Ten Commandments here. These tablets are called, sometimes, the luchot ha-edot, or tablets of testimony. Those tablets are stored inside the Ark of the Covenant, at the center of the Tabernacle, which is at the center of the Israelite camp. These tablets testify to God’s giving of the Torah to Israel at Sinai, and their continual presence in the midst of the camp testifies to Israel’s covenant with God, which was sealed at Sinai. The tablets act as witness to Israel’s covenant that it shall be a special nation, sanctified unto God, holy. There is another connection to the ten commandments: throughout the parsha, the ten commandments are interspersed in altered order and form, but certainly to the point where it is a recognizable phenomenon. Clearly there is a connection between the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle, the relationship between God and Israel, and holiness.

I will present my idea below. God is exhorting the people to be holy, to be special and set apart. To tell a nation to be set apart is essentially telling them to be set apart from other nations, from other peoples. This makes sense enough. After all, the parsha contains a long list of “don'ts” which are forbidden activities of the people of the land of Canaan, which the Israelites will be entering. They will be living among these peoples, but they are told to be separate from them, separate in their practices and fundamentally in their dedication to God. God has Moses deliver this message to the entire people at the Tabernacle to serve as a model for the Israelites. As the verse states, God himself is holy. God both dwells among the Israelites, in the Tabernacle and in particular above the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets which serve as witnesses to that covenant. At the same time, God is clearly separate. The bounds of the Tabernacle and especially the Holy of Holies, where the Ark and God’s presence dwells, are not to be crossed unauthorized, as Aaron’s sons did. The Tabernacle is an example of how to be separate, holy, and among others at the same time. That is what God expects of the Israelites when they enter the land. Even though there is plenty of impurity in the Israelite camp, God is strict that none of it shall enter the Tabernacle. Similarly, Israel is going to be living in a land among people with idolatrous, immoral, and wrong practices, but it is to have strict rules (laid out in this parsha), which prevent those bad things from “contaminating” Israel, which is supposed to be a holy nation unto God. The references to the Ten Commandments and testimony further serve to remind the Israelites of the covenant at Sinai, where they agreed to be a nation set apart, dedicated to God and observant of His rules. God is saying, you are going to be living among people who do things which are not befitting of a nation holy to God. It is going to be difficult to keep away from those practices, to separate yourself from those practices and make yourself holy. But, God is saying, look at Me. Here I am, in the midst of the world, in the Tabernacle, and yet I maintain my separateness. It can be done, and in fact I am telling you that it must be done.

This reminds me of the idea in Isaiah of Israel being a “light unto nations.” To be an inspiration and a source of light, one needs to be in the midst of the other nations. At the same time, one needs to maintain a separateness so as not to be brought down to the level of those nations, because to be a light, you have to be brighter, be higher, like the Pilgrims’ vision of the “city on a hill.” I think this is very practical in our own lives too. As Jews, we have to maintain our separateness as a nation dedicated to God by staying away from the harmful practices of others. At the same time, we live among people of other “nations” and groups. When we live among other people but refrain from their bad habits, we sanctify God by showing people that “God’s people” are dedicated to God and have good habits, and thus Jews can be an inspiration to others. I know this all sounds very elitist and Jewish supremacist, and that is not my intention, but frankly, I think that those attitudes come from the parsha itself. Anyways, this is a nice segway into Emor, which deals with holidays. That’s because the holidays contain aspects which are both universal to all people, and also particular to Israel and its history and the process of it becoming a nation separated, consecrated to God.


I’ve got my AP Calc test tomorrow, so I probably shouldn’t be staying up to write this. I couldn’t help it though, after watching the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ short video dvar Torah on this week’s parsha, Emor. Emor describes many of the holidays Israel is to observe, including Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the three pilgrimage festivals. We also have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Sacks pointed out that the holidays are related to the Sabbath because one, Israel is to refrain from work on them and, two, they relate to the number seven (they either fall in the seventh month, or on a date which is a multiple of seven). They also relate to Shabbat in that Shabbat is built into the nature of the world, as are the holidays. God rested on the seventh day, creating no more. The seven day cycle is universal, going all the way back to the beginning of nature, at Creation. Similarly, the three pilgrimage festivals all relate to nature. Pesach is the spring holiday, when the Earth is reborn from winter. As a holiday with ties to nature, the natural aspect of it is evident and not exclusive to Israel, and so we see that most cultures celebrate some sort of springtime rebirth holiday. We then come, seven weeks later, to Shavuot. Shavuot corresponds to the ripening of the first fruits. The plants which were reborn and began to emerge out of the ground in winter have come to fruition. Many cultures, also, have some sort of late Spring/early Summer fruit ripening holiday. Then, on Sukkot, we have your prototypical autumn harvest festival. Some academic scholars suggest the practice of Sukkahs began as huts which farmers would camp in during their harvest. These holidays are cyclical and follow nature’s pattern, just like Shabbat. They are universal to all the peoples of the Earth. This reminds me of the description which Christine Hayes gives polytheism in her book, introduction to the Hebrew Bible. She describes ancient polytheism as seeing the Divine in nature, and not above it. Ancient polytheists saw God’s power in the seasons and the forces of nature, and saw those forces and seasons as inseparable from the power itself. God, to them, was the God of Nature. Rabbi Lord Sacks, however, points out that the God of Israel is, in addition to being the God of Nature and of all the people’s of the world, also the God of History and of Israel in particular. Thus, we see that there is a second dimension to the holidays. In addition to the cyclical, natural connotations they carry, the holidays also represent critical moments in the linear movement of Israel’s history. Pesach is the birth of the nation in Egypt. Shavuot is the giving of the Torah, the fulfillment of the purpose of the Exodus, the fruition of it all. Sukkot is the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. Rabbi Sacks points out a duality. God is universal and particular to Israel. God is the God of Nature and of Culture. He likens this to the way in which physicists theorize light. It acts as both a wave, a continuous, cyclical sinusoidal function like the cycles of the season, and a particle, constantly moving forward like the march of history. Israel introduced to the ancient world the idea that God is not in nature but above it. God is the master of the seasons, not subject to them. Rabbi Sacks points out that this dichotomy between cyclicality and linearity extends to the dual institutions of priesthood and prophecy. The priests connect with God through cyclicality, through an unchanging rhythm of set rituals, just like the seasons come and go without fail. The prophet connects with God as God pertains to the historical situation of the people. Aaron’s job never changed, no matter what the Israelites did. Moses’ job did. He had to respond to the current state of the people of Israel, as did all other Prophets that followed him. Their message to Israel was situated in Israel’s stage in history. This principle extends to our own lives. In some ways, life is like a sine function, endless repeating itself. Shabbats and Pesachim come and go, week in and week out, year in and year out. There is holiness in this, in the regularity of it. At the same time, our lives march on, linearly. We go from birth to death in a straight line. We move linearly at the same time as we do cyclically. We age as the seasons pass. In this eternal cycle, Koheleth sees futility and misery - nothing new under the sun. In the end, though, Koheleth sees that life is not eternal, is not endless like the cycle of the seasons, and so one should enjoy their life while they can. I think it is really beautiful and amazing that we can live this life in which we have, on the one hand, eternity in cycles (the life cycle of birth and death, too), as well as finiteness and mortality from the perspective of a single life. As we know, God is the God of them both. God is both constant, steadfast and regular like the cycle of the seasons, but also God is with us as we move through different stages of our lives. Well, now I really should do a couple more flashcards and get to bed.

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