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Kedoshim Thoughts

Reading Parshat Kedoshim this past week, I was drawn to verse 14 of chapter 19 of Leviticus: “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am יהוה.” I find this verse interesting on multiple levels, but as usual, I will explore just one here. Rashi’s comment on this verse makes a connection to the verse in Exodus, 22:27, which goes as follows: “You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people.” The similarities are the prohibitions on cursing somebody. In Exodus, we are commanded not to curse chieftains - men of power and authority, men whom we are naturally afraid of. Kedoshim, on the other hand, prohibits cursing somebody who cannot hear, and therefore there will be no direct or immediate repercussions. What accounts for the difference? Obviously these could just be, and are, two separate commandments which do not necessarily contradict each other. Still, I think when you look at the commandment in Kedoshim through the lens of Kedoshim, you learn a lot. That perspective of Kedoshim, a portion known as the Holiness Code to scholars, is all about being holy. The parsha is framed beginning and end by the commandments “You shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy” and “You shall be holy to Me, for I יהוה am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” I think we can use our commandments against cursing the deaf and placing a stumbling block in front of the blind to understand one aspect of “holiness.”

As I mentioned earlier, the basic characteristic of cursing a deaf man and placing a stumbling block before a blind man is that the perpetrator will unlikely be discovered by the victim. The perpetrator thinks he is getting away with his act - nobody sees or hears. Our verse counters that, though, exhorting us to fear God. Even when no humans will know our crime, God does. Even when we can plead innocence on a technicality or ignorance (“I didn’t technically trip him” or “He couldn’t even hear, so there was no consequence . . .”), God knows our innermost intentions, and so there is no escaping the true judge. Now think back to the verse from Exodus against cursing chieftains. Sure, it’s wrong, but frankly, it doesn’t take a Divine commandment not to curse somebody that could have you killed. It’s not really that special. It doesn’t make you holy because you don’t insult the people with the guns. In Kedoshim, however, the situation is different. There will not be repercussions; one has the power to insult or trip without being discovered. You can do it. What is stopping you? Fear of God, of course. By not tripping the blind man or insulting the deaf man, you are affirming God’s rulership over you. If there was nobody else watching and ruling over you, why wouldn’t you do these things (not that you necessarily would, but if compelled, what would be stopping you). By affirming God’s rulership over you, you make yourself holy like God because you are saying that I as a person and we as a nation are ruled by God and are special in that way. As the verse puts it “You shall be holy to Me, for I יהוה am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.”

I think this idea of Israel being holy by affirming God’s rulership over it is present throughout Kedoshim. Much of Kedoshim is about things Israel is forbidden from partaking in. Israel cannot eat the fruits of its land until five years. It mustn’t eat the meat from a sacrifice after two days. There is a whole long list of forbidden sexual encounters. Partaking in all of these acts is something within our power. We could easily eat those forbidden foods and have that illicit sex. Similarly, we can curse the deaf and trip the blind and get away with it. However, when we exercise restraint, when we do not take what God does not designate for us, even when it is in our power, we affirm that God rules over us, and thus make our nation a nation unto God, separate and holy. These fruits, these sacrifices, our own bodies (tattooing is also forbidden in this portion), we don’t really own them - they belong to God. When we follow God’s rules about things which we can control ourselves, we are consciously making ourselves separate and holy by striving to follow God’s Law and thus affirming his rulership over us. Israel's status as a nation holy and separate rests entirely upon its faithful relationship of subject-ruler with God.

There is a certain Biblical character who, to me, really exemplifies this understanding of holiness: Yosef HaTzaddik, aka Joseph. From the beginning, Joseph had a tendency towards fearing authority, even when it was not present. As a child he brought tales of his brother’s misdoings back to his father Jacob, despite the fact that he could have said nothing and there would not have been any consequences - as Jacob was not present for these misdoings and was unaware of them. This is the beginning of Jacob’s favor for Joseph and his brothers’ contempt towards him. Their contempt and jealousy end up motivating them to send him into a pit and then sell him into slavery in Egypt. In Egypt, working in the household of Potiphar, Joseph rises in status. Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his household, giving him power of everything but his wife. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph when nobody is in the house. Such a sexual encounter would be a violation of his master’s trust, would be violating his master’s marriage, would be forbidden. And yet, nobody would know about it. Joseph could partake in this sexual encounter without reprocussions, it was within his power, and yet he feared and respected the authority of his master and did not violate him by having sex with his wife. A similar thing occurs to when Joseph told tales to his father. Potiphar thinks he is being a goody-two-shoes and is jealous, and so she sends him into the pit of the dungeon by lying to her husband that Joseph attempted to have sex with her. Always, even when they are not present, Joseph fears his master. In jail, Joseph is blessed by God with dream interpreting abilities, which ultimately leads him into Pharaoh;s household, and he ends up being second-in-command in Egypt. Pharaoh gives Joseph control and free reign over all the government. Joseph could easily have abused the power his master had given him. He could have collected funds from the people and pocketed them. Instead, he devoted all his time and energy into enriching Pharaoh and the crown. Presented with the ability to take what did not belong to him without repercussion, Joseph refused, always fearing and respecting the authority of his superior. But, you say, this goody-two-shoes always respecting master attitude again causes calamity! You are correct! Joseph’s presence in Egypt ultimately lures down his brother and sets in motion the slavery in Egypt. But, I tell you, how does that slavery end? God frees the Israelites and sends them on their way with material riches to the Torah and the Promised Land! In the end, all of the short-term jealousy and hardship that respecting authority created led to material and spiritual blessing. Joseph never took what was not his, even when it was in his power to do so.

The Israelites were coming to the land of Israel when they received these commandments. It would be in their power to do whatever they wanted with the land. That, though, does not make you special from any other nation, does not make you holy. What makes you holy is refraining, is refraining from fruit: “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden*forbidden Heb. root ‘-r-l, commonly “to be uncircumcised.” for you, not to be eaten,” is refraining from consuming all of you produce yourself: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I יהוה am your God,” is refraining from cheating in business: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity,” is refraining from unfair judgements: “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kin fairly,” is refraining from tattooing your own body, is refraining from sexual partners which are forbidden, is refraining from tripping the blind and cursing the deaf, is refraining from keeping all of your money to yourself, is refraining from withholding payment to poor laborers, is refraining from etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The common thread: all of these things are within your power. Israel makes itself holy - different and special - by recognizing that God sees all, the God rules over all, and by living accordingly. That is why Israel is inheriting it’s land; it is to be different, it is to possess this land, so special to God, because it is to make itself a nation under God, as the Torah says, “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I יהוה am your God who has set you apart from other peoples.” The nations before did not recognize God’s kingship, they took whatever they wanted and didn’t refrain. Israel is to be the opposite. That, I think, is why Kedoshim is so focused on the disadvantaged. Don’t take advantage of the blind and deaf, don’t withhold the wages of the hired laborer, welcome the stranger as your own, etc. It is because in not taking advantage of the disadvantaged, we sanctify ourselves by saying that we are above beasts, which take whatever they want. Instead, we are a people of God, and thus separate and holy, because, even when things are in our power, we don’t take advantage of them if we should not. In fact, I think that is the heart of what is often considered the most important verse of the Torah: Love your number as yourself, which is nestled right here in Kedoshim. Sure, you can be selfish. Sure, it is within your power to consider only yourself, relish only in your own successes and cater only to your own needs. A holy society, though, is one which says that even though I can cater to only my own needs, God is ruler over me, I myself am not the highest authority and the end of all means, and so I should not only serve and love myself, but I should do the same for my neighbor. There is no material motivation, in fact there is material loss, but in doing so, we inherit the greatest blessing of all, which is to be holy like God. And by the way, if Joseph’s story is any indication, we can expect long term prosperity from not partaking in that which is not designated for us by God, as it says with regards to the practice of waiting four years before eating fruit,you do it so “that its yield to you may be increased: I יהוה am your God.”

PS: How did Reuven, the firstborn of Jacob's sons, lose his increased inheritance to Joseph? Whereas Joseph always refrained from what was forbidden to him, Reuven had some sort of sexual encounter with Bilhah, his father's wife, one of the sexual relationships forbidden in Kedoshim.

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