As the great flood story begins, we learn that Noah was "a righteous man; in his generation he was above reproach" (Genesis 6:9) and we wonder what kind of compliment has Noah just been paid. After all, what does it mean to be the most righteous person in a generation so wicked as to be drowned for the depths of its sin? It is a careful comparison to be sure, but in the end we know only this: Noah was a righteous man.
This week's portion carries a similarly dubious honor. Acharei Mot/K'doshim is the darling of the entire Book of Leviticus! Rabbis wait until the seventeenth chapter just for the chance to share their insights on these words, which we call the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26). And yet I wonder, is the Holiness Code just the Noah of its generation? How great a compliment is it to say that these words of righteousness far surpass the rest of a book in which animal sacrifice, ritual cleanliness, leprosy, acne, and afterbirth are our usual subjects of concern?
By the standards of Leviticus, this week's parashah is a gold mine of opportunities. By the standards of Genesis, it is a story without beginning, middle, or end. In these few brief chapters, our subject ranges from celebration of the Sabbath to honoring one's parents to refraining from idol worship to the proper time to eat an animal sacrifice. Then it is off to agricultural law, then civil disputes: thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not swear falsely, then, thou shalt not steal once again. Then it goes on to the subject of contracts and disputes: be fair with your workers, respect the disabled, be evenhanded in judgment. Then there are the duties of the heart and a series of laws about what to think beneath what you do: don't bear a grudge, don't hate someone in your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, and on and on it goes. The Holiness Code is the original "rambling rose." There is no rhyme or reason to her verses. She just babbles on like a never-ending stream.
Noah was a righteous man, and by my eyes, the company he kept only enlarged his virtues by causing him to reach beyond them. Similarly, these ramblings on righteousness, embedded in the ritualized legalism of the rest of the Book of Leviticus, teach us the importance of context, just as well. At the center of ritual is the desire for righteousness. At the root of the law, is the struggle to be a mensch.
Step back for a moment as we lend some order to this wonderfully righteous cacophony of words. Here is the key: the concepts embedded in the Holiness Code are considered by many to be equal even to the Ten Commandments. It's a nice compliment, but there is more to the comparison than first meets the eye.
Haven't we seen these words somewhere else before? Here, try this, read Leviticus 19:36, "I am the Eternal your God who freed you from the land of Egypt." Then read Leviticus 19:4, "Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I the Eternal am your God." Then read Leviticus 19:12, "You shall not swear falsely by My name . . ." Now read the second half of Leviticus 19:3, ". . . and keep My sabbaths . . . " followed by the first half of that same verse, "You shall each revere your mother and your father, . . ."
Do you feel the looming presence of another famous collection of ethical laws? In fact, there are direct parallels to each of the Ten Commandments to be found here. All it requires is a careful eye, and a delicate hand, and what eventually emerges is something that might more reasonably be called "The Holiness Code."
If this were Genesis, I might even say that there is a story beneath the story in this text. Of course this is not Genesis, it is Leviticus, and there is virtually no story line to be found. But, let's just say for a moment that there might be. Let's just imagine that this rambling rose has thirteen petals, by which I mean that the text we see on the surface of the Holiness Code is just the beginning of a deeper lesson that lies beneath.
The Torah is a garden, and the most luminous lessons within her are each like a rose, within which there are layers upon layers of meaning. If the Holiness Code is such a rose, let us peel back her petals and see what may lie beneath. The most interesting little petal lies at the center of it all. There are subtle differences between the presentation of the Ten Commandments found here in Leviticus and the more famous listing found in Exodus. The difference is not so significant in the list of the first five commandments involving commitments from humanity unto God, but it becomes more and more so as we examine our responsibilities to our fellow human beings.
The repetitious rendering of "Thou shalt not commit robbery" in Leviticus 19:13 teaches us not to steal, not to take what is not ours by fraud, and not to rob from our neighbors in any way. Furthermore, the second half of that very same verse says: "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning." That is, in God's mind, the same as robbery, since the laborer has earned a wage and one who keeps it withholds what belongs to the laborer at the completion of the day.
The Holiness Code is more than a parallel to the Ten Commandments; it is a commentary on those words. The Ten Commandments is a list of dos and don'ts. The Holiness Code is a variegated garden of verses meant to teach us how to be holy. It teaches us that the Torah is not a book of laws, but a series of lessons on righteousness.
Holiness is the intention for righteousness, not just doing the right thing, but the desire within it to be righteous. Holiness is independent of one's age or surroundings. Holiness is the dream of a better world and the desire to play our part in its coming. Holiness is the commitment to live these words that lie here at the heart of the Torah: "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2).
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish thought for two decades at Bellarmine University.