The Midrash (Tanchuma, Siman 3) points out that this parashah contains all of the ten commandments, and that is why the opening verse (19:2) reads: Speak to the entire community of the children of Israel and say to them, ‘Be holy.’

Until this point, the Torah has focused mostly on the functioning of the mishkan  or the temple, its priests, its sacrifices, and the concept of tum’ah (impurity) that can prohibit anyone from entering the holy spaces. Most of what we have read about until this point relates to ritual uncleanness and devotion to God, not interpersonal ethics. It is telling, then that Parashat Kedoshim, in which we are commanded to “be holy,” so many interpersonal commandments are given. We are told here to do business ethically, to honor our parents, to avoid lashon hara (slanderous speech about others), and many others.

Yeshayahu (Isaiah) makes clear the fact that the sacrifices that make up the majority of the Torah’s text  mean nothing without our acting ethically and enforcing justice.

“What use have I for all your burnt offerings?” says the Eternal. “I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of livestock, and I do not accept the blood of cows and sheep and goats…. Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, plead the widow’s case! (1:11-17)”

Yeshayahu could even be interpreted to be saying that justice and ethics matter more than sacrifices, holidays, shabbat, etc. But can it mean that those things do not matter at all?

The fact that Yeshayahu spoke as a prophet, and not as a philosopher, answers that question. To a prophet, service of God is of foremost importance. What Yeshayahu says is that justice is essential to living a holy life. A passionately religious life not lived ethically is disgusting to God, he says. Better to live without religion than to live with such hypocrisy. But the ideal is clearly a life in which the ethical and the spiritual inspire and enhance one another. In this week’s parashah, we are told (Lev. 19:35-36):

Do nothing corrupt in judgment, in measurement or in weight. You shall have just (accurate) scales, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin. I am the Eternal, your God, who took you out of the Land of Egypt.

The fact that the nineteenth chapter of Vayikra (Leviticus) is a mix of moral, civil, and ritual laws drives this point home to us. We are to be a holy people. This means that we should be perfectly honest in business and justice, we should avoid slander, we should speak honestly to each other and not hold grudges, we should avoid eating blood, and we should keep Shabbat. All these things are intertwined as part of a holy life. We must be committed to God, not just passionate about God. Religious commitment means a commitment to living honestly and justly. We should keep this idea in mind as we prepare, during this season of sefirat ha’omer, to receive the Torah on Shavuot, as this is what it means to receive the Torah in the first place.

Shabbat Shalom!

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