A Balancing Act by Ariel Caplan


Parshat Kedoshim is famous for being Mitzvah-packed, often juxtaposing groups of seemingly unrelated Mitzvot in one paragraph, sometimes even in one Pasuk.  However, close analysis of these cases shows that there is a reason for the order of the Mitzvot in this Parsha.  One example of this is the Pesukim that state (19:26-28): “Lo Tochlu Al HaDam, Lo Tenachashu VeLo Te’oneinu.  Lo Takifu Pe’at Rosheichem, VeLo Tashchit Eit Pe’at Zekanecha.  VeSeret LaNefesh Lo Titnu BiVsarchem, UKetovet Kaaka Lo Titnu Bachem, Ani Hashem,” “Do not eat with (literally: over) blood, do not divine and do not tell fortunes.  Do not round out the corners of your head, and do not destroy the corners of your beard.  And a cut for a soul do not place in your skin, and a permanent mark do not make in yourselves, I am Hashem.”  This order seems rather random and unconnected; it is almost as if Hashem just wanted to go through a bunch of Mitzvot and therefore simply rattled them off.  However, a deeper look into these Mitzvot shows that there is a motive for this grouping: they all give us guidelines to follow in our relationships with the non-Jewish world.

The first group of three Mitzvot advises us to beware of practices that decrease our belief in Hashem.  Divining and fortune-telling (see Rashi, who explains them as actual supernatural practices) clearly undermine our belief that Hashem will provide for us and protect us.  In addition, Ramban defines the prohibition to eat with blood as a reference to the practice of creating a pool of blood around which demons gather to predict the future.  (While there are certainly many other definitions of the Mitzvah – see Sanhedrin 63a – this definition is most relevant to the current discussion).  Hence, all three refer to practices that are used to attempt to circumvent God.  While of course the concept of Hishtadlut, human effort, mandates that we take steps to ensure our own success, we must still realize that our fate is solely in Hashem’s hands.  Predicting the future certainly undermines this idea, as do any ideologies that deny the influence of God on personal and world events.

The next Pasuk, which teaches the Mitzvot of Bal Takif (leaving one’s Peiot) and Bal Tashchit (not shaving the corners of the beard), deals with maintaining our cultural identity.  When we deal with non-Jewish society, we have to remember that we are a separate entity, as the Torah states (Bemidbar 23:9): “Hen Am Levadad Yishkon, UVaGoyim Lo Yitchashav,” “Behold!  It is a nation that dwells alone, and among the nations it will not be counted.”  Midrash HaGadol interprets this as meaning that the Jews must always be a distinct group and never assimilate among the nations.  It is of the utmost importance to uphold our identity and thereby our faith.  As Ibn Ezra notes, the Mitzvot of Bal Takif and Bal Tashchit effect a physical mark of our distinction, serving as a reminder of who we are and of our mission in this world.

The next Mitzvot dealt with are those of Seret LaNefesh, cutting oneself out of mourning over a dead person, and Ketovet Kaaka, tattooing.  This Mitzvah can be seen as a warning not to adopt physically self-damaging practices that we may see around us (see Rashi on Devarim 14:1), such as alcoholism and drug abuse, which are much more prevalent in society today than many of us would like to believe.  These are obviously diametrically opposed to the philosophy of the Torah, which states, “VeNishmartem Me’od LeNafshoteichem,” “Be very careful for your souls (i.e. lives),” and “VaChai Bahem,” “And you shall live through them (i.e. the Mitzvot)” (Devarim 4:15 and Vayikra 18:5, respectively).  Our communities are certainly not immune from this problem, and we must do all we can to prevent these and other dangerous behaviors.

The general thrust of these Pesukim is that we must be very careful to distinguish between the good and the bad influences from Nochri society.  There is certainly much to gain from the non-Jewish world.  One good example of this is the integration of a system of appeals courts into the Israeli Beit Din system; the idea of a court of appeals emerges primarily from non-Jewish court systems.  However, we must also be careful not to integrate the negative elements of Nochri society into our own lives and maintain our separate cultural identity.  It is only if we find the correct balance that we can truly be an Or LaGoyim, a symbol to the nations of how to properly serve Hashem.

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