Parshat Aharei Mot Kedoshim: Social holiness

The list of instructions for creating a proper, humane society which appears in this week’s Torah portion is written under an interesting title which needs to be clarified: “You shall be holy.”

April 18, 2013 21:05
3 minute read.
Torah reading

Torah reading 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)

The list of instructions for creating a proper, humane society which appears in this week’s Torah portion is written under an interesting title which needs to be clarified: “You shall be holy.”

This is how the parsha begins, and it is even named this way. After this general declaration, a detailed list of instructions appears on how that holiness is supposed to be expressed in our lives: You shall not steal; neither shall you deal falsely, nor lie one to another.

And you shall not swear by My name falsely...

You shall not oppress thy neighbor, nor rob him; the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with you all night until the morning.

You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind... You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor... You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself... (Leviticus 19, 11- 18) What is the connection between all these instructions and the title under which they appear? Why is a person called “holy” if he is one who does not steal, does not cheat, judges righteously, does not slander, does not take revenge, loves his fellow man no matter who he is? And maybe we should look more deeply into the definition of what “holiness” means? When we talk about a holy man, the more common and accepted definition is of a person who separates himself from human society, ascetic and isolated, a monk living on his own out there somewhere or deep in meditation over many years. This is the accepted meaning of the term “holy.” But the Torah teaches us that this conception is mistaken.

The peak of holiness is not expressed in withdrawing from life, but to the contrary, in creating an active, social life based on moral principles. This is Jewish “holiness.”

Why, then, was the title “holy” bestowed upon a moral man who positively influences society and works toward its repair? This is because “holy” indeed means withdrawal and abstinence. Not from human society, but from the egocentric conception that places man in the center of life. Such a conception causes each person to first worry about himself, bringing about a corrupt society rife with injustice. But the conception of “holiness” which places the principles of morality and justice at the center, and creates a society in which each person worries about the other, creates a wondrous, humane society composed of individuals who place utmost emphasis on the principles of honesty, fairness and morality.

This description sounds utopian, almost imaginary. We look at the society that seems to live by the rule of “survival of the fittest” and ask ourselves: Could there be a different kind of society, one based on “survival of the honest”? The concern with this question is actually one of the factors preventing the creation of this wonderful society since, although we express our expectation that everyone behave honestly, we do not focus on our own moral obligations. When each of us first expects the other to be honest, no one lives up to this expectation. The fulfillment of this vision is only possible when each of us focuses on our own moral obligations without the expectation of social payback. Only then, only in this manner, can there be a proper humane society which can be “heaven on earth.”

This week’s parsha proposes an opportunity to adopt these important principles, to focus on what is incumbent upon us, to be fair to each other, to our family, to the weak among us, and to create a holy society; one which is humane, friendly and fair – something that every person on earth yearns for.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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