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.
Ten Commandments embodied in the opening verses
Contains thirteen positive mitzvahs and thirty-eight prohibitions
Presents laws that facilitate achieving kidusha (holiness; separateness) including…
o Ritual laws
o Being in awe of parents
o Avoiding worshiping and making idols
o Consideration for the poor…
Leaving the ends of one’s field and vineyard for them
Leaving gleanings for them
Not to gather stalks of grain and grapes that fell during the harvest
o Dealing with fellowmen:
Not to steal
Not to withhold another’s property
Not to delay payment of a hired worker
Not to give misleading advice
Not to gossip
o Prohibitions of bearing a grudge… of taking revenge…of embarrassing another
o “Love thy neighbor” … because he is just like you!
o Agricultural issues:
Not to mate animals of diverse species
Not to sow various kinds of seed together
[Note: The reason for these laws is unknown. Rabbi J.H. Hertz cites Josephus who thought that mixed breeding was prohibited “for fear that such an unnatural union in the animal world might lead to moral perversion among human beings.” … Bible scholar Mary Douglas thinks that these laws reflect the Torah’s aversion to the mingling of distinct categories. This is also manifest in the prohibition of wearing a garment made of different kinds of thread (sha’atnez) and in the prohibition to mate different kinds of beasts.]
o Not to eat the first three years’ fruit of a fruit-bearing tree…fruits of the fourth year to be eaten in Jerusalem
o Prohibited Canaanite customs:
o Heathen mourning customs connected with worship of the dead are prohibited:
Cutting corners of head and beard
Gashing and mutilating one’s body in expression of excessive grief
o Respecting elders
o Treating converts with kindness
o Honesty in business… maintaining accurate scales, weights and measures
o Cursing of parents is punishable by death
o Prohibition of following Canaanite customs
• Molech worship
• Forbidden sexual relationships
• Necromancy (communicating with spirits of dead to predict the future/ witchcraft)
Sefer Vayikrah Part II
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes that the first seventeen chapters of Sefer Vayikrah present a flow of themes relating to the Mishkan. Included are descriptions of the…
Korbanot (offerings) brought by the individual, both obligatory and voluntary, to draw closer to God
Rules and procedures to be followed by kohanim (priests) when bringing the korbanot
Mishkan dedication ceremony
States of tumah that preclude entry into the Mishkan
Avoda (service) to be performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur
Prohibitions of eating korbanot outside the Mishkan
Parshat Kedoshim presents rules for conducting our lives—a topic that continues through the remainder of the Book. The phrases “Ani Hashem” (I am God) --usually referring to commandments dealing with interpersonal relationships-- and “Ani Hashem Elokeichem” (I am the Lord your God) --usually dealing with issues between Man and God--appear 53 times in the second half, after having appeared only once in the first half.
Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Leibtag, the message here is that God’s presence is not limited to the Mishkan. Rather, the relationship we experience in the Mishkan is meant to be carried over into our behavior in the “real world” outside the Mishkan. Fulfilling both positive and negative commandments reminds us that God is Omnipresent and is inexorably bound up in our everyday life. This awareness helps us sustain the felt-but-often-soon-forgotten closeness to Him experienced in the Mishkan.
On Being Kadosh (holy)
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them ‘you shall be holy’ for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (“Dabair el call adas b’nai yisrael v'amarta aleyhem kedoshim teheyu…”)
Moshe spoke directly to all the people this time (instead of first teaching Aharon and the Elders) because so many Torah laws are included and possibly because he wanted to make the point that the core ideals of kindness, integrity, and honesty were attainable by all, not just a select few. [Note: the root of “adas” is “ayd”, which means “witness”. By hearing these laws, Israel is witnessing the Covenant that God made between Himself and the nation.]
The Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks that Moshe is stressing the positive aspects of being Jewish: “You should be holy because I, God your God, am holy”. Immediately identifying the people as holy-- even before describing the commandments and warning of the consequences of their non-observance-- is a lesson for us all to approach one another with warmth, with friendliness and with positivity.
Holiness Means “Separation” or “Setting aside” …
In behavior, or in place (Holy Temple) or in time (Shabbat; Holy days)
Thinking for oneself (e.g., not following a mob or crowd)
A prostitute is called a kedaysha because she separates herself for pagan worship and for her distinctive “profession”.
Being holy does not mean removing oneself from the surrounding Society. On the contrary, the Torah is filled with practical prohibitions, regulations and laws--both humanitarian and ritualistic--that affect all aspects of our life and which, when 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, just like God Who transcends and is separate from the world but 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 that defines us, separates us and makes us different (i.e., holy).
Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky, author of Holiness a Negative Concept, maintains that the restraint and self- control inherent in negative behavior commandments (Lo sa’ase) is the thing that makes an individual kodesh, presumably because successfully battling the urge to succumb to the prohibited builds character and is what sets us apart.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo decries the failure of the modern-day religious community to adhere to these values. Judaism’s integrity is being violated by the behavior of both its citizens and its leaders in many realms including financial dealings and sexual behavior. “This is nothing less than a global desecration of God’s name. With it we have compromised our most sacred commodity: being a light unto the nations…We forgot to fight for righteousness, for justice, for holiness in the name of the Torah; and now we must fight against sacrilege, against injustice, and against evil.” We need to…
• Look for every opportunity to apply the highest standards of Judaism and to live its morality and ethics
• Publicly protest corruption and indiscretions
• Re-assert and inculcate in our education system the Torah Truth in our lives regarding our interpersonal relationships
• Call to account even the most trivial unethical behavior
“The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents.”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel)
“A Jew must do everything possible to spread and strengthen Yiddishkeit in his surroundings”
On Shabbos and Parents
The first behavior cited to become kadosh is “ish emo v’aviv terau v’es shabsosi tishmoru ani hashem elokaychem” which I think is best translated as “you shall each be in awe of (rather than “in fear of”) his mother and father and keep My Sabbaths; I the Lord am your God.” The word terau may also be related to the word meaning “to see”. The Torah is directing us to use our “inner eye” (our understanding) to perceive and understand the importance of revering parents.
Why the juxtaposition with Shabbos?
Rashi thinks this to teach us that in the event parents instruct the child to violate the Sabbath, the child 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 --father, mother and God (as embodied in the concept of Shabbos).
On the Meaning of “Lo s’kallel”
“Lo s’kallel chayraysh” (“you shall not curse the deaf…”).
“Ki 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 of “kalell” also means “light”. Thus translated, we are being warned not to treat a physically challenged person lightly or with contempt or taking him for granted. Do not insult him or take advantage of him, even if you are able to do it with impunity. Don’t think he will not be sensitive or that he does not welcome the opportunity to respond because he doesn’t hear. Such behavior hurts us and sullies our 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.
The Torah also is warning us to not treat parents lightly or to think of them as ignorant. Mark Twain’s observation is particularly apropos: “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 denigrate our parents, we invariably face the “death” of some part of our emotional development which will, in turn, hurt our relationships with Man and with God.
“And do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (“V’Leefnay eevayr …”)
On the surface, we are warned about exploiting a person’s weakness (and humiliating him) in a nasty way.
On a deeper level, this prohibition cautions us that we are forbidden to cause another person to sin.
Examples of such behavior abound:
• Serving or making wine available to an abstaining Nazir
• Hitting one’s adult son-- which will provoke the son to respond in kind
• Lending money with interest, causing the borrower to sin
• Selling weapons to one likely to engage in criminal activity
• Lending money without witnesses which can cause disagreement about terms and payment
• Giving bad advice to someone seeking our counsel
“V’ahavta le’rayacha camocha”: Love thy neighbor (fellow human being) as thyself”
According to Rabbi Akiva, this commandment to “love thy neighbor (fellow human being) as thyself” is the fundamental principle of the Torah.
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 several 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 “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. We all have conflicts, emotions, worries, and may need assistance. Be understanding and empathic to another’s situation…I think the trup supports Biur’s view in that “love thy neighbor” is a free-standing phrase that is followed by “he is just like you”. The implicit link between the two is the word “because”.
Rabbi Marc Angel notes that this commandment does not mean that we should allow someone to commit injustices. Another commandment in the parsha calls on us to chastise someone who is behaving wrongly. Rabbi Angel points out that the mitzvah implies that we need to love ourselves. “This means that we need to live upright and honorable lives; when we look in the mirror, we should see someone whom we respect. This is also an essential ingredient in the ‘golden rule’”.
Dr. Alvin Schiff quotes Rav Soloveitchik who points out that the Torah’s use of the prefix “le” [rayacha] instead of employing the preposition “es” underscores the need for one to be constantly and consistently performing this mitzvah.