> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish


Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

And God spoke to Moshe saying: 'Speak to the entire Community of Israel, and say to them "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy."' (Leviticus 19:1-2)

The opening verse of this week's Torah portion serves as the introduction to the most important teachings in the Torah, and by extension, of Judaism.

The central laws governing man's relationships with his fellow man are enumerated in the verses which follow in rapid fire:


  • do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind;
  • do not curse (even) the deaf;
  • do not stand idly while the blood of your brother is shed;
  • love your neighbor as your self (arguably the most famous injunction in the Torah).


Despite the decidedly "ethical" emphasis of many of the commandments, this section does deal with "ritual" concerns as well. What is perhaps most striking -- and indeed is a trait of the entire Torah -- is the intertwining of laws which are man-oriented with commandments which are God-oriented.


* * *



While other ancient systems dealt with either ritual considerations or social considerations, the uniqueness of the Torah is the understanding that the ethical and the ritualistic are two parts of one organic whole.

The "Code of Hammurabi", for example, is a series of torts which might be labeled a "social contract," but it's social concerns are not a function of a relationship with a deity.

On the other hand, the Torah teaches:

'You shall fear your father and mother and guard my Sabbaths, I am God.' (Leviticus 19:3)

This one verse concerns itself both with an individual's relationship with his parents and with Shabbat. The verse is signed "I am God" as if to say "I am God who commanded you to observe both -- the ethical and the ritual." The conclusion which we draw is that the individual who falls short in his responsibilities to his fellow man is, at the same time, transgressing against God as well. Even the verse "Love your neighbor as your self" concludes with "I am God."

God is concerned, perhaps equally, with both the ethical and the ritual.

There is another, more subtle lesson to be learned from this textual juxtaposition: God is concerned, perhaps equally, with both the ethical and the ritual. Therefore, those who turn to the ethical teachings, as expressed by a few of the verses in this section, as their exclusive definition of Judaism, are misreading the intended message by ignoring the context, and indeed the very words of the Torah.

The opening verses of this week's Torah portion cited above are critical for an understanding of the Torah's message. But why was it necessary to gather the entire community to teach it? The Midrash answers:

Why was this section taught in a gathering? Why does it not state "Speak to the children of Israel" as it does in the other sections of the Torah? Because all the Ten Commandments are included in it." (Tanchuma Kedoshim section 3)

The Midrash sees this Torah portion as a restatement of the Ten Commandments. Because of its importance, it must be taught in front of the entire community.

We should note that the Ten Commandments also combine the ritual with the ethical. The Talmud stresses this point in the following passage:

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, said "I am... You shall have no other ..." the nations of the world said "He is preaching for His own aggrandizement." But when He said "Honor your father and mother," they praised ... by the end of the commandments they came to appreciate the truth in the first ones. (Kiddushin 31a)

According to this passage, the first commandments did not make a positive impression upon the nations of the world, perhaps because they were reminiscent of their own deities. But when God began to require man to behave ethically in interpersonal relationships as well, the nations understood that they must reevaluate the first commandments as well.


* * *



The command to be holy seems difficult to fulfill. How can finite, limited man be "holy"? Moreover, what is holiness?

The commentaries teach that holiness translates as "separateness." Rashi, citing the Midrash, teaches that we must separate ourselves, specifically from illicit sexual relationships. With this reading, Rashi creates a logical flow of ideas from the previous Torah portion, Acharei Mot, which ended with a list of forbidden relations.

We are to separate ourselves from things which go against the spirit of the law not just the letter of law.

Nachmanides, on the other hand, sees this verse as a more general teaching to avoid excess. Nachmanides understands that we are to separate ourselves from things which are not explicitly forbidden, things that go against the spirit of Jewish law although they are within the letter of law.

In either case, according to both Rashi and Nachmanides, we are called on to be holy -- to be separate. Why? The Torah gives a reason: "... because I, the Lord, your God, am holy." But, if holiness is a trait of God our question returns, how can man achieve it.

The Kotzker Rebbi said:

How can man be holy? Only because "I the Lord your God am Holy." (Shem Mishmuel Vayikra page 277)

The Shem Mishmuel, a grandson of the Kotzker Rebbi, explained his grandfather's teaching as follows: Every Jew has within him a part of God's holiness, which enables him to achieve holiness. Man can become holy, because man was created in the image of God. But every person possesses a different soul, therefore each person has a different holiness within him.

A wonderful dichotomy emerges. This section of the Torah was taught publicly in order to teach man how to become holy, and within the method of this teaching lies the essential message -- holiness is something which belongs to the collective Jewish community.

If holy means separate, a person might be led to believe that in order to become holy he must recoil, and remove himself from the community. Therefore this section was taught publicly -- to communicate to us that the holiness we seek is found in the community.

New light is thus shed on the celebrated Talmudic passage in which Hillel is asked by a potential convert to teach him the entire Torah while he stands on one foot. Hillel responds:

"What is despised by you do not do to your friend. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary; go learn!" (Shabbat 31a)

Hillel's Aramaic paraphrase of the verse "Love your neighbor as your self" is found in the Targum Yerushalmi, as the explanation of the verse. Rashi's explanation of the passage seems strange:

What is despised by you, do not do to your friend. Do not abandon your friend and the friend of your father. (Proverbs 27) This refers to God. Do not break His Words, for you hate when your friend ignores your words.

According to Rashi, the friend which you should not mistreat is none other than God Himself! Hillel, according to this understanding, literally had in mind the entire Torah, ethical and ritual, interpersonal relationships as well as the human relationship with God.


* * *



We now see that the line drawn between the two types of laws is not as broad as we might have thought.

Loving my neighbor includes loving God; loving God includes loving my neighbor. I must be holy because God is holy. To be holy means to be separate; the way I will become holy is by loving my neighbor. By loving my neighbor I display my love of God.

We now understand why Jewish law will legislate that before one may approach God in prayer, one must first accept the commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Let us return to the text of the Torah. After the teaching of loving one's neighbor, what comes next?

What can come next? How can any commandment top this beautiful teaching? But being that this comes the middle of the Book of Leviticus something must follow.

'Guard my statutes, do not combine species of animals, in your fields do not combine the species, and clothing of shatnez (wool and linen) shall not come upon you.' (Leviticus 19:19)

This verse seems anticlimactic. The shift is sudden and brutal -- from loving one's neighbor, the height of ethical discipline, we find ourselves thrust into the most arcane ritual, the prohibition against mixing wool and linen, a commandment without apparent rhyme or reason.

Deeper analysis reveals the connection: As we noted above to be holy means to be separate. Keeping the species separate is a lesson in holiness. The topic has not shifted as drastically as we imagined.

The Vilna Gaon in his commentary to the "Sifra Deztenuta" (chapter 4) explains the origin of the prohibition of wool-linen mixture from a mystical perspective.

The fratricide of Cain resulted in the prohibition against mixing wool and linen!

Abel was a shepherd, tending sheep, while Cain worked the land, raising plants. The fratricide of Cain resulted in the prohibition against mixing wool and linen! This is because the first person to be guilty of not loving his neighbor as himself was Cain. His sin had far-reaching repercussions, resulting in a need for more holiness in the world, more separateness, more appreciation of the existence of different realms -- animal and plant.

Had Cain realized that a unique aspect of God existed in Abel, he never would have killed him. He must have thought that Abel was expendable. He failed to understand that the image of God within every person is unique, and that for mankind to achieve holiness all of these different parts of God need to be united.

Consequently, a new type of separateness needed to be introduced to the world, in order to remind us of the terrible crime of Cain. The laws of separate species therefore follow, naturally, logically, immediately after the commandment "Love your neighbor as your self."


* * *



Loving our neighbor brings Godliness into the world, as illustrated by the following Midrash.

(Note: This Midrash is relatively long, and it exists in two sources, with slight variations. Otzar Midrashim page 319, and Yalkut Me'am Loez, Vayikra page 210. The following is a paraphrase):

There were once two friends whose friendship was profound. Because of wars and various intrigue the friends were separated for many years. Finally one heard where his friend was, so he traveled to visit him.

Unfortunately the countries where the two lived were at war with one another. Rumors began to spread regarding the mission of the stranger who had come to visit. Soon he was arrested and charged with espionage. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by the king himself.

The man pleaded with the king to grant him one last wish. The king asked, "What is your wish?" the man answered that he was a prominent businessman in his home country, and being well known he often did business on credit, by a handshake. The plain truth was that though he accumulated a small fortune, most of his money was lent out to people without contracts. He asked the king to allow him one last trip home to put his affairs in order, and say good bye to his family. If not, the king was not merely sentencing him to death but also his children to a life of poverty.

The king was incredulous, "How am I to believe you that you will return, what can you possibly give me as a collateral"? The man responded that he had a good friend that lived in the city, and that he was sure that the man would be willing to take his place on death row until he returned. The friend was brought in. "Would you take your friend's place?" he was asked. "You understand that if he does not return it is your head that will roll." The man agreed. "After all," he said, "what are friends for?"

The king was intrigued to see if the man would truly return, so he allowed him to leave, knowing that the execution would take place in 30 days. The appointed time came, but the man had not returned, so the king instructed his guards to take out the friend and decapitate him. They brought the man out, put his head on the block, and as the knife was about to come down, a loud murmur could be heard from the crowd. The executioner was told to wait. Lo and behold, the man had returned.

He walked bravely up to the executioner and grabbed the sword, and said "I am here and prepared to meet my fate." The friend stood up and grabbed the sword as well and said, "You are late, the deal was for you to be back by this morning. Since you did not arrive, I am the one to be killed." The friend responded, "But it is I whom they accuse of treachery, it is I who was sentenced to die."

The king observed the argument and summoned both men. "Neither of you will be killed, on one condition." They both looked at the king and asked, "What is the condition?" The king answered, "That I can become your third friend."

The Yalkut Me'am Loez uses this story to teach the meaning of the verse "Love your neighbor as yourself, I am God." The profound message of the story is that if man would truly and wholeheartedly love his neighbor, God promises to love both men and be our constant partner, our third friend.

The commandments which are between man and his fellow man include God as well. We now understand why "groundless hatred" caused the destruction of the Temple. When we act with love for our fellow man, we bring the Shechinah, God's Presence, down into the world; hatred between men expels the Shechinah from the world.

The holiness of God is reflected by the holiness of man; the uniqueness of God is manifested in the collective uniqueness of all men. The bonding of two people causes more divinity to be revealed in this world.

To be holy means to be separate. Each person must find the unique divinity within himself and within his fellow man. This necessitates our "separateness," and our unity.

May God place our portion among the lovers of both the Jewish people and God, for it says (in the Zohar): "The Jewish people and God are one." (Minchat Chinuch)

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