This Shabbat we’ll be studying two parashot, Achrei Mot and Kedoshim which arefound in Leviticus 16:1-20:27. The double Torah portions of Achrei Mot and Kedoshim can be succinctly summarized as the Torah’s “holiness chapters.” Leviticus chapter 16 addresses the holiest man in the world – the High Priest – concerning the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur – and his service carried out in the holiest place on earth – The Holy of Holies. Not to be outdone, the next parashah is called Kedoshim which means “holy ones,” and begins with a very famous verse about holiness:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
The opening passage in Parshat Kedoshim begins with the commandment to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2). Jesus alludes to this verse in his famous Sermon on the Mount, but significantly escalates the imperative: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). This is one command that many would argue is impossible to keep. How can we be perfect if we are fallible by nature? How can we be holy like God if He is most holy?
Much of what should be understood about holiness can be derived from the word’s Hebrew etymology. The Hebrew word for holy is קָדוֹשׁ (kadosh), which carries the connotation of being ‘set apart’ or different from what could be considered ordinary or mundane.
For example, the Temple is holy because it is set apart from every other edifice in the world as it hosted the presence of God. Jerusalem is called the “holy city” because it has the distinction of housing the place of worship. And Eretz Israel is called the “holy land” because it is central to God’s covenant with the Jewish people.
All of these are called holy because they are distinct and dedicated to God’s purpose. According to the Bible, the process of becoming holy or making something holy is called sanctification. Perhaps the most famous act of sanctification or “setting apart” takes place every Friday evening in Jewish homes, where a blessing of kiddush is said over a cup of wine, and a verse from the creation account is quoted:
“And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy – having ceased on it from all the work of creation that God had done” - Gen. 2:3
Like Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple, the Sabbath is holy. The Holy Shabbat derives its distinction from creation because, unlike the other six days, God ceased from creating and dedicated it, later entrusting its safekeeping to the Jewish people for all time (Ex. 31:16-17):
So Bnei-Yisrael is to keep the Shabbat, to observe the Shabbat throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.It is a sign between Me and Bnei-Yisrael forever, for in six days Adonai made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.
Holy and Set Apart
With this most basic principle of holiness explained, we can now begin to understand God’s imperative to His people concerning holiness. The first and most obvious question we should ask is what it means to be holy. Or framed another way: What is it about God’s holiness that we are commanded to emulate? In the context of the Torah portion – Parshat Kedoshim, the command to be holy as God is holy introduces a long list of instructions that would seem to define the standard for holy living.
For example, in the very next verse, God repeats the imperative to revere our parents and to guard His Sabbaths (Lev. 19:3): “Each one of you is to respect his mother and his father, and keep My Shabbatot. I am Adonai your God.” In verse 4, He admonishes the Israelites to shun idolatry: “Do not turn to idols, or make molten gods for yourselves. I am Adonai your God.” Interestingly, these three instructions carry over from the Ten Commandments, which serve as categorical preludes to the rest of the Torah’s 613 precepts.
Throughout the rest of the chapter (19:9-37), the Torah provides instructions about the responsibility that mutual covenant members have to each other, with v. 18 comprising the most famous line that encapsulates all the others:
“Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
The implication for holiness is that Israel must be solely consecrated to God and entirely devoted to each other for the purpose of being a light to the nations. For this reason, God demands Israel to be distinct from the rest of the world: “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in Canaan, where I am bringing you” (Lev. 18:3).
Toward the end of Parshat Kedoshim, after providing a list of positive commandments in chapter 19, and a list of negative commandments in chapter 20, God again reminds the people:
“You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them (Lev. 20:23).”
As the precursor to all of this, the holiness statement in 19:3 is God’s admonishment to be set apart. Just as God is distinguished and unique in the universe, so too are His people challenged to be distinct and uncorrupted by the world around them.
The same standard is incumbent upon us today. As disciples of Yeshua, we are called to be different from the rest of humanity and live lives that rise above – for instance – the illicit sexual relationships described in Leviticus 18; because according to the correct understanding of holiness, whenever there is a separation from immorality, there is also holiness.
In this regard, Peter quotes Lev. 19:2 in his epistle when he says:
“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do…” - 1 Peter 1:16
Holiness does not necessarily mean that we will be perfect, but the Torah also assures us that if we are faithful in the pursuit of perfection, we will inevitably be distinct and achieve holiness (Deut. 16:20): Justice, justice you must pursue, so that you may live and possess the land that Adonai your God is giving you. In the context of Yeshua’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount, this is what he meant when he said to be perfect. The preceding verses establish his point:
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”
HINT: Be different! Rise above the ordinary!
“And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” - Mat. 5:46-48
The message is clear: We must strive to emulate God in every facet of our life. Perfection lies in the motivation of our heart — to see the world the way God sees it, and to make every effort to walk in stride with His narrow path.