Leviticus 19:1-20:27

This week's Torah reading begins with God's telling Moses that they are to be holy:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." (Lev. 19:1-2)

The name of the portion comes from the instruction, "You shall be holy (kedoshim)." The word kedoshim means "holy" (plural). But what does it mean to be holy? A lot of things should be taken into account when we define what it means to be holy, but the primary aspect of holiness is defined through restrictions. This is why God gave the Children of Israel so many "thou shalt not" commandments. He set them apart from the pagan nations around them through restrictions in their conduct, showing that they were to be a holy people.

One way to understand what it means to be holy is to understand what it means to be "unholy." When many people think of something "unholy," they think of something wicked or evil. But that's not what it means. It simply means to be common or, to use King James terminology, "profane." So, if a person is unholy, it just means they are common and like anyone else. So, to be holy means that we are different from those around us. And one way we can be different, or holy, is to restrict or limit ourselves in the things that the Torah prohibits. But this is obvious. Anyone who studies the Scriptures can pick up on the fact that we are not supposed to engage in commerce on the Sabbath, speak ill of our brother, defraud our neighbor, etc. What is more of a challenge is limiting what is permissible. Our rabbis have taught, "What the Torah forbids is not permitted, but the permitted is not always necessary."

Do we really need that third helping of dessert? Do we really need over 300 channels on our televisions? Do we really need the dozens of video games covering our shelves? Do we really need that ... ? You fill in the blank. By not limiting ourselves in things that are permissible according to the strict reading of the Torah, we can often find ourselves in a position described by Nachmanides as "disgusting with the permission of the Torah." Even though we may be living strictly according to the "letter of the Law," we could easily find ourselves in a position where the beauty and the wisdom of the Torah begins to lose its luster because our eyes are clouded with the world.

Yeshua warns us against such things when he gives his series of "You have heard it said ... but I say to you." In many of these he places a fence around the Torah and reminds us that even though the Torah gives us the right to do such-and-such, it's not always in our best interest to do so, especially when it negatively affects a brother. As Paul reminded the believers at Corinth, "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12). The next time you pass on that extra helping of dessert, or refuse to make a brother pay for damages he is responsible for, remember that you have just taken a step toward holiness and becoming a part of a holy people.