Today, we hear a lot about power: military power, corporate power, and political power. We don’t hear as much about personal power. But, in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, a double portion, we learn about the potential for personal power. It follows Acharei Mot (“After the Death” of Aaron’s sons) and instructions about purity. In Acharei Mot, we follow the unfortunate outcome of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who brought an alien fire into the Tent of Meeting, which was an affront to God and Moses. Personal power isn’t a sin, but the misapplication of it can lead to horrific outcomes. In K’doshim, we open with the Holiness Code and within it a credible means to personal power that also reflects God’s holiness.
In Leviticus 19:2, we read, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” God’s holiness is enduring and everlasting, and God’s holiness is the source of our holiness. The proof text is found in II Chronicles 13:5, “Surely you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, gave the kingdom of Israel to David, forever…” Now, our verse, “You shall be holy,” can be read, “You shall always be holy, for I the Lord your God am always holy.”
From this we might conclude that personal power is equated with God’s power; but, it isn’t that simple. In Leviticus 19:2, the Hebrew verb tih’yu, “you shall be,” is written in the imperfect form (not simply the future tense) of the verb “to be.” It means that being holy is not instantaneous even though holiness is present. Likewise, salvation, which is a Jewish goal, is not instantaneous either. Through performance of mitzvot, salvation might be achieved over a lifetime. Milton Steinberg explains:
“Other men (sic) may help him. They may give him courage, guidance, instruction; they may blaze trails and set examples. But, in the end, sight is not sight if it is vicarious. Companionship, whether with God or anyone else, must be immediate or it is not companionship. In sum, there is and can be no vicarious salvation. Each man must redeem his own soul.” (Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism [NY: Harvest, 1947], p.58)
For us, such salvation or human holiness is a work-in-progress that we achieve over time when we do mitzvot, “ethical and ritual commandments.”
In Vayikra Rabbah (24.4), a commentary on Leviticus, the Rabbis use the word perush to explain how we can gain salvation or human holiness. Perush means separate. If we substitute “separate” for “holy” in K’doshim, the verse takes on fresh meaning: “You shall be separate for I am separate.” To “be separate” is the key to being humanly holy. I read it this way: the key to being humanly holy is living above the fray.
The entire Holiness Code separates human behaviors from the fray by lifting us up to new standards of behavior. Constantly aspiring to do sacred mitzvot gives purpose to our work and our relationships. For example, Leviticus 19:9 describes a human ethic that separates us from our baser instincts by aiming our efforts towards a higher good:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest … you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
Most of us understand the meaning of this ethical teaching, but its implication can escape us. As urbanites, many of us don’t know much about farming, but we do know much about reaping benefits and harvesting returns. Shouldn’t we also know something about leaving a portion of our earnings for the poor and the stranger?
Likewise, food is a necessity of life. When we live above the fray we see it as nutritious fuel and not as a triumph. “All you need,” rather than “all you can eat,” is a better way to approach the restaurant buffet. Sex is also a God-given urge. Living above the fray can mean a loving relationship with expectations for satisfying that urge in mutually respectful ways. The Talmud is rife with examples about how to satisfy both hungers with holiness in mind.
Alan Morinis, author of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar and leader of today’s Mussar movement, relates the following:
When asked how he had had such an impact as a great sage and leader in the 20th-century Jewish world, the Chafetz Chaim answered, “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
That brings us to Leviticus 19:18, which commands us to “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Eternal.” This is the high point along the way. Here we have aimed high enough so that our human holiness is reflected in what we’ve made of ourselves and then extended to others. Mutual love and respect is the apex of holiness.
Our covenant with God is predicated on our participation in a set of rules that elevates us beyond even our own expectations. Our covenant demands that we become more with Torah, rather than less without it. Now, let’s pause to reflect, to give thanks, and to look for ways to aim high. You, too, are commanded to be holy, humanly holy.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.