torah | We are to be holy — what does that mean in daily life?by rabbi jonathan jaffe
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This week, we reach the very center of the Torah, as Parashat Kedoshim sits equidistant from Genesis’ opening to Deuteronomy’s conclusion. Here, at the very heart of the Torah, we learn about being kadosh — holy. The word kadosh literally means separate or distinct.
Embedded within this description of holiness, we encounter a rather cryptic commandment: “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Lev 19:14).
How are we to understand this and what does it teach us about holiness?
On a basic level, we may understand the commandment literally. The deaf cannot hear our insults and the blind cannot see the obstacles we place before them. Our ability to ascend toward holiness is based upon our ability to look out for the “other” in the community, especially those whose senses are limited.
The commentator Sforno adds that we are liable for damages caused, even when we do not physically contact a person. Should a person jump out of the way to avoid us, only to fall into a ditch, we are liable for the physical damages caused, even indirectly.
Expanding upon the idea of indirect causality, the Talmud forbids burying the dead without a sign or headstone, lest a Kohen (a priest who is prohibited from coming into contact with the dead) should accidentally come upon a grave (Moed Katan 5a). The Sifra adds to this the prohibition against giving poor advice that may lead to a person’s being injured. Perhaps a modern example would be selling a mortgage to needy buyer, when the broker knows the buyer will eventually default.
Our commentators further expand their understanding of this commandment to include malicious temptation. To offer wine to a Nazarite (who marks his vow to God by abstaining from wine) is prohibited (Avoda Zara 6b). Likewise, when people enter into financial agreements without proper witnesses and documentation, all become liable for possible misdeeds as it increases the temptation to cheat (Baba Metzia 75b).
Even when the transgression is not entirely our fault, we are still liable for the part we played in causing it to occur.
Finally, our commentators understand this commandment as prohibiting Jews from assisting in polytheistic belief or ritual. The Talmud forbids trading with idolaters in the days preceding their festivals, as these transactions will enable the idolater to more easily practice polytheism (Avoda Zara 1:1). Similarly, we may not sell weapons or dangerous items to idolaters, who may then use them to force their ways upon others (Avoda Zara 1:7). We cannot shirk our responsibility if we enable others to engage in dangerous or destructive behaviors.
What do these prohibitions teach us about holiness? First, holiness is not merely a personal issue. We bring God into the world through our actions within the community. What we do and say affects the world around us, including how we experience the sacred.
Second, others’ exercise of free will does not negate our liability. When we enable others to make poor choices, we are at least partly to blame. The Torah opens with Cain calling out to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). Here, the text resoundingly answers “yes.”
Finally, holiness implies a distinct moral practice, above the standard expectations of citizenship. If Israel is truly to be holy, it will need to aspire towards the prophetic idea of serving as or l’goyim — a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). It is perhaps for this reason that this week’s parashah begins with the words “You will be holy” rather than “You are holy.” True holiness is an aspiration, toward which we dedicate our lives and consider our actions, even when we only passively affect our neighbor.
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