For even casual readers of the weekly parasha, Parashat Kedoshim is widely known as the section of the Torah where holiness is placed at the center of God’s agenda for the Israelites, as the Torah links God command to the Israelites that, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord Your God, am holy” (Vayikra 19:2) with a diverse and extensive series of mitzvot. In Taking Hold of Torah, Chancellor Arnold Eisen writes that our parasha implies that the possibility of holiness should be the motivation for the Israelites to dutifully follow God’s mitzvot:
“That is the point of the text’s constant reminder to do this or do that, or avoid this or that, to make discrimination without end, “because I the Lord your God am holy.” The concluding phrase does not provide authority so much as motive. Leviticus’ God has created human beings with the intention of surrounding them, from birth to death, with meaning so palpable and rich that even the volatility of sex and the terror of death can undermine it. The order must be constructed in and through the things we do and do not eat, the people we do and do not sleep with, the forgiveness we extend to one another every day for the pain that we inflict every day. God can suggest this order but only we can construct it. Nor does God need it. We do” (Arnold M. Eisen, Taking Hold of Torah, 80).
According to Eisen, we need mitzvot to pursue holiness, and Parashat Kedoshim, and much of Sefer Vayikra, lays out a roadmap for how we can pursue a life of holiness. However, the question remains as to how the mitzvot of our parasha provide a pathway to holiness, and we will need to turn to the world of midrash to find two different answers for this question.
Early midrashim are divided into two primary categories: Midrashei Halakhah, which use verses from the Tanakh to explain the origins and context of individual mitzvot in the Torah, and Midrashei Aggadah, which provide homiletical explanations for individual passages in the Torah. Turning to our parasha, midrashim from these two textual categories provided different windows into the question of how mitzvot represent the pathway to holiness. In the Sifra, a work of midrash halakhah, we are told that all mitzvot in this section are for the larger purpose of sanctifying God, hence the statement of our parasha that “You shall be holy.” The midrash states:
““You shall be holy” – you shall set yourselves apart. “For I, the Lord your God, am holy” – meaning that if you make yourselves holy, I shall credit you as if you had sanctified Me, but if you do not make yourselves holy, I shall view you as if you have not sanctified Me. Or, perhaps it is to say none other than if you make Me holy, then I am sanctified, and if not, then I am not sanctified? The text says, “for I am holy.” In My sanctity I exist, whether or not others sanctify Me” (Sifra on Vayikra 19:2).
In this midrash, all of the individual mitzvot mentioned in Parashat Kedoshim are in service of a single, all-encompassing mitzvah, the mitzvah to be holy. When the Israelites perform each individual mitzvah, they simultaneously sanctify God’s presence through their everyday actions, thereby making the individual mitzvot the roadmap by which they pursue a kind of “super-mitzvah” to be holy.
Taking a different approach, in Vayikra Rabbah, a work of midrash aggadah, our rabbis argue that the mitzvot of the Holiness Code parallel the precepts mentioned in the Aseret Ha-Devarim (Ten Commandments), making this passage in Parashat Kedoshim a parallel of the ultimate act of revealed Torah. The midrash states:
“A teaching was brought in the name of Rabbi Hiyya: This section was said with all the people gathered because most Torah essentials are based on it. Rabbi Levi said because the Ten Commandments are included in it. “Anochi Hashem Elokekha” [the first Commandment] – and here it says, “Ani Hashem Elokeikhem” (Shemot 19:2). “You should not have [other gods]” [the second Commandment] – and here it says, “Do not make a graven image for yourselves” (Vayikra 19:4). '”Lo tisa” – and here it says, “Do not take an oath with My name” (19:12). “Zakhor” – and here it says, “And you shall guard My Shabbat” (19:3). “Honor your father and mother” – and here it says, “A person should fear his mother and father” (19:3). “Do not murder” – and here it says, “Do not stand on the blood of your fellow” (19:16). “Lo tinaf” – and here it says, “The adulterer and the adulteress should die” (20:10). “Do not steal” – and here it says, “Do not steal” (19:11). “Do not give false testimony” – and here it says, “Lo telech rachil be-amecha” (20:16). “Lo tachmod” –and here it says, “And you should love your friend like yourself” (20:18)” (Vayikra Rabba 24:5, Translation from Yeshivat Har Etzion).
This midrash implies that the series of mitzvot from our parasha represent kind of a second revelation of God’s Torah to the Israelites, as the core principles revealed to the Israelites in Parashat Yitro are echoed in similar mitzvot commanded in this week’s parasha. As a result, God’s command that the Israelites should be holy is a second opportunity for the Israelites to accept Torah, for the pursuit of individual mitzvot lead to individual and collective holiness, thereby demonstrating that the Israelites are taking God’s charge seriously. Rather than assume that mitzvot are commanded multiple times for no purpose, this midrash implies that this section from our parasha has the same cosmic significance as the ultimate covenant-forming moment in the relationship between God and the Israelites.
While each of the above midrashim take different approaches to why our parasha links countless individual mitzvot with the command to be holy, both of midrashim recognize that Parashat Kedoshim outlines individual mitzvot to present a roadmap for emulating God in a life of holiness. Today, we have the same educational challenge before us at Schechter, for helping our students understand how ordinary, everyday acts are ultimately what define whether or not we will be able to call ourselves a holy people, a holy community, and a holy school. May each of us embrace a life of mitzvot, the method and motivation to pursue holiness, for embracing that pathway allows each of us to bring the divine into every aspect of our lives.