Yom Sheini, 23 Elul 5779
Monday, 23 September 2019
Parashat Kedoshim 2014

Parashat Kedoshim
Rabbi Richard Jacobi
25th April 2014

There are many good reasons why parts of this portion, namely Leviticus 19: 1 - 4, 9 - 18, and 32 - 37, are read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur in Liberal synagogues (see our Machzor, p.359). Yet, if you read the whole chapter, you will see what we don’t read from our High Holy Day prayer books, as the Torah reader skips the omitted verses. In my opinion, in almost every case, we should be pleased not to be reading them - the peace offering, inappropriate carnal relations and guilt offerings, or inquiring of ghosts! Given that I first read the selections for my Bar Mitzvah exactly forty years ago, I’m grateful that my thirteen-year-old self did not have to confront and translate some of those verses and concepts!

The selection we do read brings us an array of ethical teachings which, as Tamara Cohn Eskenazi states, remind us that,· "Connections . . . define the holy community: the connection to parents whom one must honor, to the poor and the disadvantaged whom one must protect, to the neighbor and stranger whom one must love, and of course to God" (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 716).

On Yom Kippur, a day which is about us looking into our own selves, this Torah reading forces us to consider our connections to others. Many of the sins we confess are sins concerning our relationship to other human beings, rather than God. So, just over half-way through the Jewish year as we are revelling in the freedom gained at Pesach is a good time for us to consider again the behaviours that reinforce good relationships.

If any one commandment is singled out from the array in Leviticus 19, it is the one that occupies the second half of verse eighteen - “v’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha, Ani Adonai”. The most common translation is still “You shall love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Eternal One.” It is seen as one of the earliest manifestations of what is known as the Golden Rule, which exists in almost all world religions or philosophies. Generically, the Golden Rule advocates mutual behaviour - behave towards others as you would like them to behave to you. It is commonsensically fair. Yet, viewed in isolation, it lacks any specifics - how do we ‘love our neighbours’, what does this actually look like?·

Here, we can turn to the context, and perhaps see this general principle as a summation of the verses leading up to it. From verse 9 onwards, the text gives specific guidance - dos and don’ts - that address most aspects of life and show us how to love our neighbours as ourselves:

Verses 9 & 10 - mandate leaving gleanings from fields and vineyards for the poor and the stranger - a deliberate “inefficiency” in the economy to ensure food available for all. Not food banks, but welfare-in-kind.

Verses 11 & 12 - prohibitions on falsehood in business dealings, already linking initial theft or wrongdoing to subsequent lying, cover-up, and perjury. There are plenty of examples of this in the daily news!

Verses 13 &14 - prohibitions on taking unfair advantage of others, through your superior power, authority or knowledge.

Verses 15 & 16 - preventing perversion of justice, while also arguing for ‘whistle-blowing’ and active citizenship.

Verse 17 & 18 - dealing with pent-up hatred and its consequences, replacing this with ‘love your neighbour...” at the end of verse 18.

As our Machzor then jumps to verse 32, we immediately read about respecting the elderly, before rules about treatment of the stranger and further rules about honesty in commerce. Bearing in mind that aspects of our relationship with God and with our parents have been dealt with in the first four verses of the chapter and we have a reasonably comprehensive prescription for how to live a good life. It isn’t new; it isn’t ‘sexy’. But it continues to be radical in its distance from the everyday behaviour we see around us. Reading it, yet again, forty years on from my Bar Mitzvah, it still compels me to think and act as best I can. I hope it does the same for you.