This week we continue the “holiness code” that we initiated in our last reading, Acharei Mot. It contains something which is truly significant. We are asked to be “holy”. Other religions ascribe holiness to special places, items or people. As Jews we are not asked to recognise or define individuals who may be holy, nor places, nor even practices. We are being told that holiness is something we, all of us, can find within.
קְדשִׁ֣ים תִּֽהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy
The Parashah is filled with “thou shall not’s” and most of these are simple to understand and to follow. It may be that we interpret them in a way appropriate to the times in which we live but the messaging is clear. Some things appear bizarre to our modern ears.
Twice we are warned about
וְהַנֶּ֗פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּפְנֶ֤ה אֶל־הָֽאֹבֹת֙ וְאֶל־הַיִּדְּעֹנִ֔ים
the person who turns to Ov or Yid'oni
The warning is repeated in Devarim. There is some suggestion that this refers to the use of mandrakes which were part of near eastern practices related to sorcery and magic
What we may find not so clear are those instructions to behave, or to act in ways that may run counter to our personal feelings or inclinations.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whilst teaching, said that he was challenged by the statement
You shall love your fellow as yourself.
He went on to say that this commandment is "simply impossible to fulfil, and yet it is so important. It is the basis of all civilization."
What makes us Jews? We are instructed to follow a way of life that can be understood as constrictive. It also can be understood as a symbol of how a civilised society should function. We inherit a covenant which, with varying degrees of success, we have tried to live up to over the centuries.
Benjamin Disraeli, converted to Christianity by his father as a young child, responded to another politician of his era by saying
Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.
We cannot all be Rabbis (teachers) but we can, in our own way, be holy.