This week’s parsha is Kedoshim, a meaty portion, especially compared to some of the other parshiot in Leviticus. No longer talking about scaly while affliction, this portion revisits some of the most important rules and laws: honoring your father and mother, not worshiping other gods, observing the Sabbath, not stealing. Several but not all of the Ten Commandments are reiterated. We also hear again about other laws that have been described elsewhere: don’t gossip, don’t stand by while your friend bleeds, don’t sleep with your aunt or your daughter-in-law or your step-mother, don’t try to mate with animals, and don’t practice divination (in this particular way).
But then we get a whole new slew of rules that are mentioned first (and maybe only) here: don’t cheat (you must use correct measures and weights), don’t lead others astray or injure or manipulate them (stumbling block before a blind man), don’t curse someone who cannot hear you, don’t gather the corners of your field – leave them for the poor, when you hire a worker you must pay them right away, don’t play favorites but instead be just and righteous.
These laws, I would contend, should be the foundation of our civil society. These laws are what separate those who are nice from those who are mean, basically.
There are all kinds of people in the world, we know this already. There are some who are less socially apt than others, sometimes it’s just introversion, sometimes it’s a question of mental faculty. People who have autism, even high on the functioning spectrum, can miss out on social cues, body language, even facial expressions or vocal tones. These laws protect these types of people from others who would prey on them. These laws – were we to actually follow them – would indeed set us apart, establish us as a light to the nations.
There are other rules within this portion that aren’t so clear, their meaning may be symbolic more than plain. A great example of this is 19:19 which instructs us not to mix animal species through mating, not mixing seed as you sow your field, and not wearing garments of mixed fibers. Our ancestors seem obsessed with keeping everything straight, perfectly aligned and in its own place. Of course earlier in the Torah we know that the priests themselves wore garments of wool and linen.
Also in this portion is the law concerning rounding off the edge of your scalp and the edge of your beard. This is the law that Orthodox follow when they grow payis and allow their beards to flourish. Next to this verse is the one that prohibits tattoos. Both of these laws, it has been suggested, are to separate Israel from the other communities who did have tattoos, and shaved their heads so that just the crown of the head was covered in hair.
Separation from others has long been a trademark of the Jewish sensibility. Many of our customs are designed to do just that. I experience this often first hand when I dine out with my friends – whether they are Jewish or not – and decline the pork products. I get a certain amount of razzing, as my friends test my dedication to this concept. They tell me there are refrigerators now and the pork is safe to eat. Many believe the original purpose for the law was sanitation and health. It probably did help, as did the commandments to wash our hands before we eat. But I don’t follow that rule because it’s better for my health. I follow the rule because I can. It seems like such a small thing, in the context of all the 613 mitzvot we are given, and one I can follow on faith. I have no logic (besides the health concept) to go on, really. What I do know is it does set me apart. At a table full of folks sharing pizza, I’m the one who has the veggie pizza.
I often don’t understand the deep meaning of the Torah. And there are parts of this portion that I still don’t get. Why it is that blended fibers make me less holy, I don’t know. I can’t logically accept every word of this holy book, but I honor its legacy. I believe there are parts here that are essential to humanity and those ideas are themselves holy: Take care of the stranger in our midst, for you too were strangers once, and you should know what it feels like. Care for the sick, the feeble and the elderly and treat them with respect. 19:32 You shall rise in the presence of an old person and you shall honor the presence of an elder.
This is the grand meaning of this parasha: we are to be set apart, to be holy, like Adonai our God, who is holy. Kedoshim – the holy ones, related to the word kadosh. In this way we are different, we are special, and we have a responsibility to be that light, to lead by example. May this be God’s will.