Leviticus 19:1-18  -  Yom Kippur Afternoon Service


We read this afternoon the first half of the Holiness Code.

What is Holiness?

What are some things that the Torah identifies as Holy to us?  God, Shabbat, the people Israel, the Land of Israel.

In the reading today, which is only half of the Holiness Code in Lev 19, Holiness encompasses a wide range:
  • Humanistic rules that meet a common sense test:
    • honoring parents, leaving gleanings for the poor, don't steal or lie,
    • pay your worker's wages daily, don't pervert justice, don't gossip, don't insult the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, and love your neighbor like yourself.
  • Not dishonoring God that also meets a common sense test:
    • don't turn to idols, don't swear falsely by God's Name.
  • Ritual that seems arbitrary:
    • When you slaughter a peace-offering, eat it within two days, and burn whatever remains after that.


The list of what it takes to be Holy is so broad it doesn't seem to help much in trying to identify the essence of Holiness.

One important clue is found in the surrounding chapters.  Lev 18 begins by saying: After the doings of the land of Egypt...and the land of Canaan...you shall not do, and in their statutes you shall not walk.  (18:3)  And both Lev 18 and Lev 20 go on to enumerate many forms of sexual immorality practiced by these other peoples, as well as child sacrifice, and punishments to Israelites who do them.

So one definition of Holy is not to be like these lesser peoples.

Another important clue is that the Hebrew word for Holy, QoDoWSh, has a root meaning of "separate."  Something holy is separated from other things. 

So we are to be separate from other peoples, like the Canaanites.  Bilaam, the wicked prophet hired to curse the Israelites but instead blessed them, referred to us as a nation that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations (Num 23:9).

Does separate mean that we keep ourselves separate from worldly affairs?  No.  Maybe the best clue to what the separation of Holiness means is in the opening verse - we are to be holy because God is holy.  God transcends the world, and also is present in it; God participates in it.  So, too, we are to be part of the world, but be a model for righteous behavior for others (Buber) and transcend their unrighteousness, not allow it to contaminate us.

The reading today ends with: You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against the members of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (19:18)

What is the significance of preceding the second half of the verse, "Love your neighbor" with the first half's prohibition against vengeance or a grudge?

What is vengeance?  Taking action in retaliation of a wrong done to you.  What is bearing a grudge?  Not taking immediate action, but keeping ill will in your heart toward someone who has wronged you.

The Palestinian Talmud has an interesting comment on the connection between the two halves of the verse: It says: How can not taking vengeance and bearing a grudge be achieved?  If a man was cutting meat and the knife entered his hand, would the injured hand retaliate by cutting the other hand?

Of course not.  The point is we are supposed to regard each of our people as part of one community, so if one is hurt all are hurt.

This makes for a good fit between the two halves of 19:18.

There is some irony that our Torah reading concludes with 19:18.  Although the grand theme of Holiness is about separating Jews from others, 19:18 is about finding the commonality within the other and intertwining our lives and fates.

Included within the community in Lev 19 is both our neighbor - meaning our fellow Jew - and in 19:34 the stranger who has chosen to throw in his lot with our community and live among us without violating our rules.

Lev 19 originates in a community that is essentially tribal.  This is well before the diaspora.  Israelites then were a people who lived together within defined geographic boundaries.  Integration was not the order of that era. 

Today we can view our community as encompassing all humans on earth.  Earlier today, Darfur was mentioned; people victimized or threatened by genocide there are part of our community. 

Eli Wiesel remarked on an important teaching Jews learned from the Holocaust: To remember means to open your soul and make it more sensitive to suffering everywhere, and to injustice everywhere, and to the victims of humiliation everywhere.  Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.

Wiesel also said: We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.

So any person who suffers is of concern to Jews -- we are our brother's keeper.  In terms of the world community, love your neighbor can mean love every person who is human, who is made in God's image.

A final comment: Lev 19:18, Love your neighbor as yourself, has been praised as the fundamental principle of the Torah by Rabbi Akiba.  Hillel phrased it in the negative form when he summarized the Torah to a heathen by saying: What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man.   (Shabbat 31a)

Notwithstanding the fact that these two giants elevate 19:18 to the highest level, there is an even greater verse according to Shimon ben Azzai.  After he heard Rabbi Akiba's statement that 19:18 was the most important verse, he said that an even more fundamental verse is Genesis 5:1, and he quotes the first few words: This is the book of the generations of man...."  Ben Azzai is alluding to the remainder of that verse: In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God did God create him

In other words, it is more important to recognize that every person is created in God's image than to love every person as yourself!  This is so for two reasons: Some people don't like themselves, have low self-esteem - that should not justifying having low esteem for others.  Also, to try to love others as yourself doesn't seem practical - but we can respect and treat others with dignity and kindness by seeking within them the Divine image we know is there.  I prefer ben Azzai's view.


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