Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel and say to them “Be holy, for I, the Eternal, your God, am holy.” (19:2)


Until this point, the Torah’s focus has been the holy spaces and its professionals; the Temple/Mishkan and the priests. We have been told in detail what kinds of sacrifices should be brought, when, and by whom. We have been told about tum’ah which can prevent people from touching consecrated objects or entering the holy space, and how to be cleansed of that tum’ah. The Torah has been telling us until this point that the priests are a holy class within Israel, and must therefore be ready at all times to bring sacrifices, and be free of tum’ah and of sin.


Very seldom have the lay Israelites been the Torah’s focus. Here, in the double parashah of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, the lay Israelite is told to maintain holiness, and how to achieve it. 


As in parashat Mishpatim, we are given a list of interpersonal and ritual commandments. To be holy is to be moral, and it is to be religiously devoted. 


Chapter 19 of Vayikra begins with the first three of the Ten Commandments, but given in reverse order: 


I the Eternal your God am holy. Each of you shall fear your mother and father, keep My Shabbatot, I am the Eternal, your God. Do not turn to the idols and do not make yourselves sculpted gods, I am the Eternal your God. (verses 2-4)


While this is an exhortation to honor divine authority and the authority of one’s parents and elders, we can see this also as an exhortation to strive for a higher morality than simple obedience, and to transcend the hierarchical mindset explicit in the verses. We are told to be diligent in our spiritual and religious duties, and also to be equally devoted in our interpersonal actions. Our parents, as presented in verse 3, represent human beings to whom we owe love and respect. This should motivate us to be respectful of other people, and to act accordingly; to pay workers on time, give tzedakkah to the poor, to judge impartially and fairly, to do business using honest weights and measures, to treat foreigners as fellow human beings, and to be mindful of the ethical nature of our speech,  as the rest of chapter 19 tells us.


Just as we are told here to honor our parents, we are also told time and again “I am the Eternal your God.” Out of this dramatic statement, we are told to avoid idolatry, to keep Shabbat, to avoid eating blood and the fruits of a tree that has not yet reached its fifth year, since those things belong to God. 


Holiness is living in honor of the Source of all life, and living in a way that honors the dignity and rights of our fellow human beings. 

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