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Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.
Section One (Parsha Debrief):
This week’s Parsha (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) contained: “a whole bunch of laws that presumably teach us how to be holy.” – Rabbi Emu Shalev
In the Midweek Reading Guide, we asked a couple questions to get you wrestling with what being set apart is all about (footnote #1). This isn’t something to overlook. Especially, if Jesus and Rabbis both before and after Him point to this Torah portion as containing the great principle of Torah. In fact, in Sifra — the Midrash to Leviticus — it says most of the fundamental principles of Torah are found in this parsha.
If true, what are they?
Because Rabbi Shalev’s comment above is true. There are a lot of laws packed into this parsha — more than 31 of them.
Now, not to sell the rest of these laws short (some are mentioned in Section Four), but based on the life of Jesus, He offered up the ‘great principle’:
love your neighbor as yourself
Jesus wasn’t alone in this notion. Rabbi Akiva, one of the sages recorded in the Mishnah, lands on the same principle.
Did you know this verse isn’t isolated? Leviticus 19:18b doesn’t stand alone. There’s a 19:18a. Also, Rabbis make the case that Leviticus 19:17 is necessary to understand what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
That being said, I think verse 17 stops short. Rashi’s commentary on Leviticus 19:16, particularly the Psalms he quotes, leads me to believe that it too should be included in unpacking love your neighbor as yourself.
Let’s put all the connected pieces front and center:
You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord. You shall not hate your fellow in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on their account. You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
-Leviticus 19:16-18, emphasis added
Here’s what jumps out…
- gossipmonger (i.e. slanderer)
- hate/anger in your heart
- revenge/grudge (i.e. pondering violence)
These are the transgressions associated with the plague of tsara’at as discussed in Spiritual Leprosy. To reiterate, these anti-social transgressions unravel the cohesion of a community.
So, either this is an enormous coincidence, or the great principle of Torah is deeply connected to the restoration of community (Footnote #2).
I find it really hard to believe that it’s merely a coincidence that the language around Jesus’ death, resurrection, and His discussion of the second greatest commandment, just so happen to connect to the Hebrew Texts involving restoring the divide between community. It really seems like God thinks a community’s survival is dependent upon relinquishing hate in the heart.
Moreover, what’s going on in the heart, seems to be the heart of it.
Ramban introduces his commentary with,
You shall not hate your fellow in your heart: Since it is the way of haters to hide their hatred in their hearts, as it stated (Proverbs 26:24), “A hater makes his lips foreign,” the verse mentioned what is common…
Rabbi Fohrman, paraphrasing Ramban, says,
Things go wrong between people. Things make you annoyed, it is okay to feel. What’s not okay is to smile when you feel [angry]. To keep it in your heart. To bury it deep inside, and pretend that everything is fine. Hatred likes to be secretive, to bury itself, the Ramban says — don’t give in to that impulse. Be upfront. Find a way to tell your [fellow] about it.
-Rabbi David Forhman, in How Can I Acheive True Love?
As Rabbi Forhman puts it, “you shall not hate your brother in your heart, [instead,] reprove your fellow (Leviticus 19:17).” That’s the alternative. The Text spells out in the next verse what to do instead of burying those feelings. But, even that seems harsh. Maybe that’s why the Text follows with “but you shall not bear a sin on their account (Leviticus 19:17b).” To which Rashi comments,
in the course of your rebuking your fellow, do not embarrass them in public.
-Rashi commenting on Leviticus 19:17
Rabbi Fohrman continues,
Do it in a way that’s not hurtful, that’s constructive. Figure out a way that they can hear what it is that you want to tell them.
-Rabbi David Forhman, in How Can I Acheive True Love?
This all sounds to me like the teachings of Non-violent Communication (a practice I highly recommend and wish we had the space to discuss in more detail).
However, if buried, hatred will come out — either overtly as revenge, or covertly as a grudge. The Text cautions us of this in Leviticus 19:18. Here’s how Rashi saw it,
[For example:] He says to him, “Lend me your sickle,” and he [the latter] replies, “No!” The next day, he [the latter] says to him, “Lend me your ax.” [If] he says to him, “I will not lend it to you, just as you did not lend to me!” this constitutes revenge. And what constitutes “bearing a grudge?” [For example:] he says to him, “Lend me your ax,” and he [the latter] replies, “No!” Then the next day, he [the latter] says to him, “Lend me your sickle.” [Now, if] he says to him, “Here it is for you; I am not like you, who did not lend to me!” this constitutes “bearing a grudge,” for he keeps the hatred in his heart, even though he does not take revenge.
-Rashi on Leviticus 19:18
Maybe to be holy, like the Lord our God is holy, we need to re-think what loving our neighbor looks like.
Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):
For the third week in a row, M.D. Goulder pairs Luke 7:36-50 with the Torah portion. I have some thoughts as to why this Text is chosen once again, but nothing concrete enough to share. If the mystery was made clear to you, please share.
Section Three (missing the mark):
Many modern-day pastors speak on the notion of being holy. Very few talk openly about embracing the tensions that exist while trying to live a life set apart. Often, pastors boil it down to this… “be in the world, not of the world.” Which, on the surface, is relevant but provides little, if any, guidance as followers of Jesus try to navigate the world around them. Let’s see what our contemporaries offer as guidance.
The Torah commands us to observe the fundamental principles of holiness and loving-kindness, but it does not clearly define either of those concepts. A person must determine their own personal limits, taking into account their time and place. Each of these principles has a main guideline. For holiness, one should take from the world less than what one desires and what one is permitted; for loving-kindness, one should give to others more than what one is required to give.
In the first chapter of The Path of The Righteous, Ramchal describes a person’s worldly obligation: God has put us in a position where there is much that might distance us from Him, namely, material desires. If we are drawn by them, we distance ourselves and turn away from the true good.” In chapter 13, which is dedicated to the trait of separation, Ramchal asks whether refraining from much of what is permitted in order to achieve holiness could lead to excessive abstinence, resulting in the person not enjoying this world at all. He answers that “there is abstinence that we are commanded to observe, and there is abstinence about which we are commanded not to fall victim to, as King Solomon declares, “Do not be overly righteous’ (Ecclesiastes 7:16).” An example of the former is to take from the world, in all that a person makes of it, only what nature renders absolutely essential for their needs. An example of the latter is to abstain not only from that which is not essential, but also from that which is necessary, thereby causing physical punishment. However, the details regarding these guidelines depend on one’s own judgment, and “according to a person’s wisdom will they be praised (Proverbs 12:8).”
In chapter 26 of the book, dedicated to the trait of holiness, Ramchal expounds that the acquisition of the attribute of holiness commences with toil and ends with reward. One starts by sanctifying themselves and ends with being sanctified. The road to holiness, asserts Ramchal, does not begin with exalted thoughts or the study of noble ideas. Rather, a person must sanctify themselves in the “ordinary” areas of life, such as their personal behavior, passions, and morality. For their efforts, God will then assist them, as it is written, “He withholds no goodness from those who walk in moral integrity (Psalm 84:12).”
Building on the words of Ramchal, Rabbi Moses Moses Zvi Neriah observes that God comes to the assistance of the person who strives for holiness in modesty and humility, and without conceit and haughtiness. God helps that person by granting them an exceptional gift: grace, as it is stated in the opening words of the verse in Psalms cited above: “Grace and honor does God bestow.” Blessed with such a gift, the person will find favor in the eyes of the people. This, then, is the deeper meaning of the verse, which reads in full, “For sun and shield is the Lord God; grace and honor does God bestow. He withholds no goodness from those who walk without blemish (Psalm 84:12).”
-Rabbi Haim Sabato, from Parsha Kedoshim in Rest for the Dove, emphasis added
Being set apart like God isn’t easy, but if we are willing to walk modestly and humbly in our approach, then God walks with us extending the exceptional gift of grace.
Section Four (real-world applications):
What I find most interesting, is the notion that a person must take into account their time and place when navigating how to live set apart. That is, being holy may look different today compared to the cultural contexts of the past. Holiness needs to be amenable to new times.
In trying to navigate those differences across time and place, God offers the person who strives to be set apart with modesty and humility — grace!
It might just be by God’s grace that we are able to live set apart lives. Lives that leave corners uncut. Lives that keep honest measures. Lives that love the foreigner among us. Lives that confront death without fear. Lives that don’t harbor anger and indignation. Lives that love our neighbors as ourselves.
Lives that seek to restore community.
Next Week’s Readings: Leviticus 21:1-24:23; Luke 8:1-21
- Previously, in The Holy Priesthood, we unpacked the idea that holiness is really about being set apart.
- During Defiled, Spiritual Leprosy, Dismantling Substitutionary Atonement, and the Epilogue, evidence was laid out that there are Textual connections between Jesus’ death as depicted in the Gospel accounts and the purification process of the metzora. Additionally, based on Rabbinic commentary, tsara’at is a warning sign and public outing that invited the gossipmonger to self-reflect and take the necessary steps to restore themselves to the community.