Across the world in the state of lockdown and the suspension of the economy, we have gotten used to regular briefings of world leaders to their respective populations.
There is a drama in gathering a nation together. Even in modern times with the technological ability to speak to entire nation, leaders typically only do so for rare historic moments of danger or opportunity. From Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression, to the stirring speeches of Churchill in the Second World War. The coronavirus is one such situation.
The first 12 months of the Nation of Israel were critical to forming a people of the Torah who could take God’s will forward into history. Yet there were only three national gatherings. The first, at Sinai, was to receive the Torah. The second was with the inauguration of the mishkan (tabernacle). Each is self-explanatory. The third one, at the beginning of the Sidra of Kedoshim, is less immediately obvious. It seems that they are being gathered to be given a list of laws. But there have been other laws in Torah until now, and there will be other laws still to come. What transformative event is happening? And how does it affect us to this day?
The Midrash Tanchuma stunningly reveals just what is at stake in this gathering:
‘You should be holy, for I, Hashem Your God, am holy.’ (Kedoshim 19:2)
To what is the matter comparable? To a king who betrothed a wife. He said to her, “Because you have been betrothed (literally, become holy)…I am a king and you, a queen…Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Go and sanctify (i.e., go and betroth) Israel,”
The term for betrothal is indeed kiddushin – a version of the word for ‘being holy’. But this Midrash is not suggesting a play on words. It is saying that the very phrase – you shall be holy for I am holy implies that man and God can share in relationship with one another. This is not about laws. It is about the radical possibility of Israel and God entering into nothing short of marriage itself! This sidra is not a collection of laws; it is a term of marriage. It transforms ‘most of the essentials of Torah’ from what we might call law, or religion, into what is essentially marriage.
Indeed, a brief reflection upon the presentation of the mitzvas in Kedoshim shows that it is not so much laws that ae being presented here, as attitudes to the laws, people, relationships and land.
Torah already told us to honour our parents. That primarily means to ensure that they are physically looked after. Now we are told that it is not good enough just to go through the motions of caring for our parents if they need us; now we are told to be in awe of them. Similar attitudes tell us to be in awe of the elderly, and of the Temple itself. Legal systems do not legislate for attitudes. Relationships do. And a relationship with God entails a whole new set of attitudes.
Until now idolatry was wrong. Now even ‘turning to’ idols is nothing short of a catastrophic violation of the marriage to God.Until now we could bring offerings, but now the intention behind them is crucial, and could make them invalid. Again, religion may demand gifts to God. But gifts within a marriage can only be valued if they express true feelings and intentions.
Until now we had laws of damages, and private property. Now we are told not to curse people even if they are deaf and can never know. More than that, we are told to love our neighours as ourselves, to love strangers and so on. Wages are no longer called wages, but the ‘achievement of the worker’ – it is not just owed to them; we should view it as if it is already their property. Withholding it is not delaying payment but theft itself.
Kedoshim transforms the way we think about relationships, be they marital relations between humans, legal and financial arrangements, the integrity of species, and even the extent to which we own land (and the need to share it with the poor). So much of Torah takes on a new meaning in the context of this new and fundamental attitude. Repeatedly the presentation of a law is followed by the words ‘I am Hashem’. Fulfilling the law is part of experiencing the relationship with Hashem.
If an alien anthropologist came down to earth to study humans, and came across the institution of marriage, they might conclude that it is an institution based on enormous amount of highly detailed laws and restrictions. Entering into marriage may affect where we live, what types of jobs we might be able to do or not do, our daily timetable, our clothing, where we place shoes, how we fold toothpaste tubes, indeed every minutiae of life. If they were to probe a bit further they might find out that humans do this because they expect the relationship to give them some kind of reward. But if that would be their conclusion then they would have missed the essence of what marriage is. To one who is in love, the experience is not that of restriction and limitation. Being in a deep loving relationship does reshape everything, because every aspect of our life is deeply intertwined with that of another, and we share it as one.
Some people experience the Torah and halacha as a set of restrictions, minutiae that affect every detail of our lives. Some people think what makes it worthwhile is the expectation of reward. Kedoshim tells us that both observations misunderstand what Torah is and what it offers. The true joy of living a national relationship with our Creator is the essence of Torah. All is transformed by it.
Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country.
Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".
Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.