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What it Means to be “Am Kadosh”

by Ilana Pomeranz, guest contributer

Parashat Kdoshim begins with the statement:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy.” Leviticus/Vayikra 19:2, and ends with “You shall be holy ” Leviticus/Vayikra 20:26.

What is the meaning of this ?

Is there a Torah basis for calling us Holy people?  Let us consider this idea – We declare that Judaism is monotheistic – a religion that believes in ONE god. We proclaim this tenet repeatedly:

“Shema Israel , Adonai Eloheinu,  Adonai Echad”

Hear Israel, Adonai is our G-d , Adonai is ONE

There is no place for another deity or another holiness.  What then is the meaning of kadosh and kedusha that are so prominent in this parsha?

Part of the answer is that kadosh and holy are not completely synonymous.  The root of the work kadosh includes an aspect of separateness, as made clear from the word Hekdesh in Hebrew, meaning:

1.  Something dedicated to the Temple, or

2.  The Temple’s treasury, or

3. A house for the poor sick or for poor elderly.

Many mefarshim, or commentators, and especially Adin Steinsaltz emphasize this aspect of the word.  In particular, with regard to the statement  “You shall be holy,” he said…..”set apart” (A Consise Guide to the Torah p. 302.)

The text itself clarifies this, adding “and I have set you apart from other people to be mine”. Leviticus/Vayikra 20:26. Thus, the word includes both the elements of separation and of dedication.

This is made even clearer by the use of words with the same in the verses immediately preceding, separation from the rest of the world, as we separate our food from forbidden food.   thus kadosh is mukdash, dedicated to serving G-d.  Leviticus/Vayikra 20:24-25.

Notice that we often use words from the root of Kuf daled shin such as kadosh (generally translated as holy or sacred), mukdash (generally translated as “dedicated”), and kidush (generally translated as “making sacred”), near words from the root of  beit daled lamed such as havdilu (generally translated as “separate”) and havdala, the name of the ceremony acknowledging the distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week.

If you make havdala,   you will recall this beautiful melody at the end pronouncing “Hamavdil bein kodesh lchol”. The one who separates between the sacred andt he mundane. 

As such, the word Kdoshim, as applied to the People of Israel, does not mean “holy,” but rather dedicated and committed to a sacred life.

What is the meaning of a life committed to serve the sacred?

Notice that we are told:”Kdoshim tihyoo” “You shall  sanctify yourselves”.  Leviticus/Vayikra 20:7.  This is an order for action.  This does not say Kdoshim Atem – you are holy! We are given a verb, not an adjective.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz draws our attention to the location of the two admonitions to be “kdoshim,” which enwrap 53 mitzvot, things G-d commands Jews to do.  This is more than any other Parsha in the Torah. Our sages noticed that this parsha includes the very core of the Torah, referring to these mitzvot as “gufei torah”, or the body of the Torah.

The combination of the use “kdoshim” with the obligation to fulfill these mitzvot makes it clear:  The way to sanctity is achieved by setting ourselves aside, dedicating our lives to accepting the yoke of heaven, the halacha, the mitzvot.  As a Jew you prove your metal by doing the mitzvot.  This is the only uniting element between many conflicting approaches through Jewish history.

This is what we are told “You shall be holy to me,” followed by our connecting  kedusha and separation “and I have set you apart from other peoples to be mine.”

We Jews love to argue, from Hillel and Shamai, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, the Rambam and the Ramban. Iben Ezra and everybody else  Chasidim and Mitnagdim.  We encourage arguments becuase this is how we find the truth.  And because our goal is to find the truth, rather than prove our point, we always include in our discussions the opinion of the opposition.  A space that demands total unification is a dangerous place. This is how Dor haplaga is described, the group building the tower of Babylon.    How then did we contain most of us in one group for three thousand years?  We all adhered to one thing – the Mitzvot – the halacha.

This is made even clearer in Chapter 20, verse 7, where the statement “And you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy”   is immediately followed by 3 very important expressions:

a.  the reason is not your innate sanctity but G-d’s – “for I the Lord am your G-d”

 What is the process?

b.  “you shall faithfully observe My laws” and in Hebrew even more emphasized   “vaasitem otam,” and you shall make them, do them.

And here comes again the emphasis on both the process and the source of process:

  • “I the Lord make you holy” again a verb.

And in the grand finale in Leviticus/Vayikra 20:22:

“ You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations”

This is not a declaration of sanctity.   This is a call for a process.  This is how we are instructed to approach G-d.

In Judaism, the connection with  G-d is through mitzvot.  This is the only path to kedusha.  Kedusha, is not holiness but  a call for serving and approaching, getting closer to the holy, the only holy,  the master of the Universe. 

The unique element of it is that the kedusha is never obtained.  You did your morning prayers but the afternoon and evening are yet to come.  You keep a kosher kitchen but now Passover is in the offing and you are embarking on a whole new mitzvah.  Yeshayahu Leibovitz compares it to house cleaning.  You keep doing it but it is never complete.

I would like to finish with my attempted translation of Yeshayahu Leibovitz  comment on this subject:”

These [you shall be holy] are most sublime orders, though at the same time, there are no  more dangerous expressions from the religious point of view, for they may be interpreted, and so they were wrongfully and sometimes intentionally interpreted as if the people of Israel have holiness in their very nature.  This approach releases the Jew from his responsibility and gives one confidence where one should never have any confidence; because this is  a direction and purpose and a mission and a program and not  a given thing.  Turning the concept of kedusha, or Sanctity, from a mission given to the people of Israel to a quality that is a given in the Jewish people is turning worship into idol worship”.

One response to “What it Means to be “Am Kadosh””

  1. talya Avatar

    A beautiful and important Dvar Torah. Thank you.

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