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You Shall be Holy: Respect versus Power

Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5781

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

As in most years, also this Shabbat we will be reading two parashot – Acharei Mot and Kedoshim – together.  Parashat Kedoshim has an abundance of commandments and directives on how we should behave in various aspects of our lives: intimate, social and ritual.

The commandment that envelopes this parasha throughout is: “You shall be holy!”  There have been many interpretations of this commandment and its connection to the others in this parasha.  One of the well-known explanations of the word “holy” is: lofty, or superior.  G-d is commanding us to makes ourselves loftier people and to use this perspective to inform the way we act in society as well as in our personal lives.

Among the other things, we read a section that deals with the holiness of ritual practice, the avoidance of acts typical of idolatrous ritual and of acts of sorcery:

You shall not eat over the blood. You shall not act on the basis of omens or lucky hours. You shall not round off the corner of your head, and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard. You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died]. You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves. I am the Lord. You shall not defile your daughter by making her a harlot, lest the Land fall into harlotry and the land be filled with immorality. You shall observe My Sabbaths and revere My Sanctuary. I am the Lord. You shall not turn to [the sorcery of] Ov or Yid’oni; you shall not seek [these and thereby] defile yourselves through them…
(Leviticus 19, 26-31)

The section ends with a verse that seems to deviate from the topic at the beginning of the section:

You shall rise before a venerable person and you shall respect the elderly, and you shall fear your G-d. I am the Lord.
(Ibid Ibid, 32)

In this verse, we are commanded to stand up for the elderly, respect them, and fear G-d.  At first glance, these commandments seem to be completely different issues, disconnected from those that preceded them.  What possible connection could there be between the prohibition to shave the sides of one’s head or scrape the body of a deceased person – acts customary among idol worshippers – and standing up for the elderly? And what connection could there be between distancing oneself from sorcery and respecting one’s elders?

As we delve into these commandments, we see that they are actually interwoven.  How? The idolatrous faith common thousands of years ago sanctified power.  Idol worshippers would strive to get closer to the gods, get strength from them, so that – they believed – they could then control various universal powers.  For this reason, an idol worshipper would deal in sorcery and fortune telling, to feel in control and be able to predict his fate as much as possible.

In the culture of idolatry, there was no room for respect for elders, but just for admiring power.  If the elderly person was a distinguished soldier in his younger years, he might be admired for his accomplishments and bravery, but if he wasn’t, he would be considered the personification of weakness and therefore, disgraceful.

The Torah commands us to distinguish ourselves from the ways of the idol worshippers, to live a life of transcendence and holiness.  We see the holiness already in the description of man’s creation in Genesis: “And G-d created man in His image; in the image of G-d He created him” (Genesis 1, 27). The creation of man in G-d’s image is not only a dramatic description of this specific creation.  It is a description meant to influence man’s existential awareness at all times.  The realization that man was created in the image of G-d obligates him to act as a transcendent being, and to treat others as such as well.  This recognition leads to the culture and consciousness of “human dignity.” A person respects other people because he recognizes a divine spark in them.  The belief that every single person deserves freedom and respect and the belief in the sanctity of life stem from the fact that we recognize the divine spark in every human being.

The commandment to distinguish ourselves from idol worshippers and the commandment to respect our elders are intertwined. The Torah commands us to distance ourselves from a culture that idolizes power and come closer to one of respect and sanctity.  The commandment to rise before a venerable person and respect the elderly expresses the natural feelings we have for someone who encompasses so much of life’s sanctity due to his long life.

Our parasha calls on us not only to act more properly, but to make our culture one that values sanctity and respect, thus making us all “holy.”


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