“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy”
Often called “the holiness code”, this week’s Torah reading is, in some ways, the very essence of Judaism. We are told up front that we should act in a way to emulate God’s behavior, and the entire parsha deals with specific ethical practices. The reading reminds us that Judaism is not only about faith, but about righteous and ethical actions.
We see this illustrated throughout the portion. It begins with the basic actions of honoring our parents and keeping the Sabbath, two primary actions that keep our consciousness aligned with ethical behavior. It is a great technique to evaluate our actions throughout each day by asking the internal question of whether what we are doing would make our parents proud of us. And to base our entire week around the Sabbath ensures that we keep an awareness of God’s Presence in our lives.
When the parsha continues with instructions that we must leave a portion of our fields un-harvested so that the stranger and the poor can gather the food, the text reminds us to always be aware of the unfortunate people in society. It makes the concept of taking care of others a mandatory ethical action, and encourages our consciousness to maintain a deep awareness of others and their needs.
One of my favorite teachings of this parsha reads, “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind”. (Lev. 19:14). It is so easy for our yetzer hara, our “evil inclination” to encourage us to take advantage of others. But this dictate commands us to constantly make an extra effort to be aware of whom we are dealing with, and to be careful about protecting others. Again, a great example of ethical behavior which is immediately followed by injunctions prohibiting us from slander, fraud, and similar behaviors that take advantage of other people.
There are a number of specific sexual prohibitions. But if we look at them, we see a commonality: sexual relations based on an inequality of power are forbidden. While many of the specific sexual prohibitions rarely occur in today’s society (incest, bestiality, etc.), the concept is as valid a guide for ethical behavior today as it ever was. We learn through these verses that any sexual relationship that involves partners of disparate power (teacher/student, boss/assistant, therapist/patient and the like) must be prohibited. When there is a coercion of any sort, overt or subtle, there is a lack of ethics and the relationship is forbidden in our tradition.
Towards the end of the portion, we are reminded again that we should be holy because God is holy. The concept of emulating God’s ethics and behavior is a process that reminds us to always act a little bit kinder, more compassionate, and caring.
There is a Hebrew phrase which sums up this concept simply. “Lifnei m’shoret ha’din”, which means “before the line of the law”. The idea is that we can follow the letter of the law and still be unethical or mean people. We are encouraged to act in ways that are even better than required. This parsha reminds us that we are to act like mensches, to be kind and considerate of others at all times.
May we all strive to be holy, and to bring more holiness into the world through our words and actions…and in so doing, help create a better world of harmony and peace.
Kavannah: Be conscious about being lifnei m’shoret ha’din this week. Instead of rushing past an older person and making him feel his age, pause and show him respect. Give your time in a conversation with someone who is lonely: it will only cost you a few minutes, but will make them feel special. Each day, focus km truly being a mensch.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
May 5th, 2022
4th of Iyar, 5782
19th Day of the Omer