K'doshim – And You Shall Be Holy

K'doshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

There are certain words that are common in religious settings but aren't widely used in the secular world. The term "kadosh" (holy), might be the most obvious example in a Jewish context. For a word that we use so regularly, whose root letters (kuf, dalet, shin) form the base of some of our most important blessings (kaddish and kiddush), this idea should be easy to define, but it isn't. What does it mean to be holy? Our parashah, K'doshim, helps us grapple with this important question and reminds us that we can answer the question ourselves.

We find ourselves at the midpoint of the Torah. There is symbolism in this portion being at the very heart of the Torah scroll. In this parashah, the Israelites are challenged, "And you shall be holy" (Numbers 15:40). Many Jews say that to be holy is to recognize our unique responsibilities to God, who is our covenantal partner.

We take the obligations of mitzvot to heart, many of which infuse our daily routines with an extra layer of meaning. The mitzvot also ensure that we behave ethically, regardless of the prevailing messages around us. But is there more? The 13th century biblical scholar Nachmanides pushes us to think more generally: "It is the way of the Torah to specify as well as to generalize. Thus, the commandments not to steal, rob, defraud etc. are followed by 'and you should do that which is right and good,' to accord righteousness, compromise and lenience the force of a positive commandment" (Ohr Chayim, comments on Leviticus). Nachmanides articulates a key question: is holiness about the particular or about the universal? Like a good rabbi, he responds, "yes and yes."

We're offered guidance in our pursuit of holiness, but these instructions are not exhaustive. If we focus too much on precise laws and prohibitions, we risk losing sight of the greater good. We're reminded that the Torah gives us a foundation for daily practice, but we are empowered to use our judgement in deciding how to best build on that foundation.

A particular act infused with holiness is marriage. When spouses join their lives together, they are called to recognize that their relationship is unique. In Judaism, we call this "kedushah." They have reciprocal responsibilities that they're called to recognize, such as standing by each another in good times and bad. As I meet with engaged couples, I share some basic wisdom, such as the importance of equitably dividing chores and openly communicating. In the end, couples are entrusted with reinforcing the foundations of their connection just as we are empowered to build on the foundation that the Torah provides. Much like strengthening relationships looks different from family to family, being holy means different things to different people. There are obvious places that we feel blessed with holiness, like the Shabbat table, but a stroll in nature or family time at an amusement park could be holy too.

By next week, we will already have read more than 50% of the Torah. We have accomplished so much, yet it's a little frightening to realize that we're closer to the end of the Torah than the beginning. There's so much more to learn. Will we really have all the tools we need in just under six months of reading our stories? It's natural to feel concerned but we can feel confident and empowered. As we move forward, may we do our best to spread holiness in our daily lives.

Originally published: