Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Prohibition of entering the Holy of Holies…annual ceremony of purification in the Sanctuary…Yom Kippur Temple service…animal offerings prohibited outside the Temple…not eating blood…covering the blood when slaughtering permissible beast or fowl…forbidden marriages and sexual relations…prohibition of child sacrifice to the deity Molech…Ten Commandments in the opening psukim of Kedoshim…listing of laws that facilitate achieving Kidusha (holiness; separateness) including ritual laws; consideration for the poor; dealing with fellowmen; prohibition of hatred and revenge; “love thy neighbor”; honesty; prohibition of Canaanite customs…punishments for Molech worship; for unlawful marriages; and for necromancy (communicating with spirits of dead to predict the future; witchcraft)
The “new”Sefer Vayikrah
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes that the first seventeen chapters of the Sefer may be viewed as a distinct unit devoted to the Mishkan. But chapter eighteen introduces us to how the Jewish people should conduct their lives—a topic that fills the second half of Vayikrah. The phrases Ani Hashem (I am God) and Ani Hashem Elokeichem (I am the Lord your God) appear 53 times in the second half, after having appeared only once in the first half.
Perhaps, opines Rabbi Leibtag, the message here is that God’s presence is not limited to just the Mishkan. Rather, the relationship we experience in the Mishkan is meant to be carried with us and to influence our behavior in the “real world” outside the Mishkan. The numerous commandments reminding us that He is inexorably bound up in our everyday life helps us sustain the emotion of closeness to Him that was felt in the Mishkan.
On being Kadosh (holy)
“Dabayr el call adas b’nai yisrael vamarta aleyhem kedoshim teheyou…” (“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them ‘you shall be holy’ for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”)
Holiness means separation or setting aside whether in behavior, or in place (Holy Temple) or in time (Shabbat; Holy days). A prostitute is called a kedaysha because she separates herself for pagan worship and sets herself aside for her distinctive “profession”.
Being holy does not mean withdrawing and separating completely from the surrounding Society. On the contrary, the Parsha is filled with practical prohibitions, regulations and laws -- both humanitarian and ritualistic-- that affect all aspects of our life and which, if observed, make us unique. Avoidance of certain types of behavior—and the self-control it demands—defines our persona and prevents us from becoming naval b’rshus hatorah (offensive when observing the Torah laws).
Martin Buber understands kedusha as separating but not withdrawing. God Who transcends and therefore is separate from the world has not withdrawn from it. We are commanded to imitate Him (Imitatio Dei) and “radiate a positive influence on them (the world of the nations) through every aspect of our Jewish living.” It is our unique life style of self-control and ethical behavior in all aspects of living that defines us and separates us and makes us different (i.e., holy).
On Shabbos and parents
The first example cited for becoming kadosh is ”Ish emo v’aviv teraoo v’es shabsosiy tishmoru ani hashem elokaychem” which I think is best translated as “you shall each be in awe of (rather than fear) his mother and father and keep My sabbaths: I the Lord am your God.” The word teraoo may also be related to the word meaning “to see”. The Torah is directing us to use our “inner eye” (our understanding) to perceive, understand and venerate parents.
Why the juxtaposition with shabbos ? Rashi thinks this to teach us that in the event a parent whom one is obligated to respect and listen to tells you to violate the Sabbath, you must disregard that request. Jack Sherman’s view is that one cannot achieve a meaningful observance of shabbos unless one has first resolved any emotional conflicts with one’s parents. Yehudah Valladares thinks the message is that both commandments are equally important. Others suggest that the Torah is emphasizing the three way partnership in one’s life of father, mother and God (embodied in the idea of shabbos).
“V’ahavta le’rayacha camocha”
According to Rabbi Akiva, this is the fundamental principle of the Torah, to “love thy neighbor (fellow human being) as thyself”.
But suppose you don’t like yourself? Also, how can the Torah dictate/command that we feel something, when we have no control over emotions of love and hate!
Nechama Leibowitz cites a number of approaches to deal with these difficulties.
• Rashbam thinks that the law is applicable only to men who are good but not to those who are wicked.
• Ramban opines that the text is not to be taken literally since it is impossible for a person to love another as he loves himself. Instead, the meaning is to wish for our neighbors the same wellbeing in all things that we wish for ourselves. His approach is supported by the text wording of “V’ahavta LE’rayacha” (have love/ for thy neighbor) and not “ES rayacha” (love thy neighbor). The Torah wants us to free ourselves from jealousy and to be happy for another’s good fortune
• Hillel, at the beginning of the Christian era, provides a negative formulation of this Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow person”. He focuses on behavior. No matter what you feel, do not do anything to anyone that you would not like having done to you. Respect every person’s feelings and interests.
• Biur’s translation is insightful: “Love thy neighbor (fellow human) who is as thyself.” You can be motivated to treat another in a positive way when you realize that he is just like you. He has conflicts, emotions, worries, and may be in need of assistance just like you. Be understanding and empathic to his situation. I think the trup supports this view in that “love thy neighbor” is a free-standing phrase that is followed by “he is just like you”. The unwritten but understood link between the two is the word “because”.
On the meaning of kallel
“Lo s’kallel chayraysh” (“you shall not curse the deaf…”).
“Ki ish ish asher y’kallel es aviv v’es emo mos yumas…” (“If any man curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death”).
The Hebrew root word kallel also means “light”. Thus translated, the first pasuk is warning us not to treat a physically-challenged person lightly or with contempt or take him for granted. Do not insult him or take advantage of him, even if you can do it with impunity. Don’t think he will not be sensitive because he doesn’t hear. Such behavior hurts your persona and sullies your reputation. Even the non-handicapped person who refuses to listen or accept your opinion (“deaf” to what you say) should not be brushed off and treated badly.
Regarding parents, I think the Torah is warning us to not treat them lightly and to not think of them as ignorant. (Mark Twain’s comment comes to mind: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.”)
If we do, we invariably face the “death” of some part of our emotional development which will, in turn, hurt our relationships with Man and with God.