Families and Universes by Reuven Herzog


The introductory command of Parashat Kedoshim, “Kedoshim Tihyu,” “you shall be holy” (VaYikra 19:2) contains a tremendous amount of ambiguity. What does it mean to be Kadosh? On a more practical level, how should we fulfill this command?

The Torah itself seems to answer this question with not one command, but an entire list of Mitzvot. Perhaps the most interesting is the first one: “Ish Imo VeAviv Tira’u,” “Every man: Your mother and father shall you fear” (VaYikra 19:3). What is so special about this Mitzvah that it is the paradigm of Kedushah-inducing acts? Furthermore, if the directive to achieve Kedushah is unique to Bnei Yisrael, why begin with something that seemingly applies to every nation? The succeeding Mitzvah – “VeEt Shabbetotai Tishmoru,” (ibid.) to keep the Shabbat – is, in fact, a commandment unique to the Jewish people that distinguishes them from other nations, making Yir’at Av VaEim seem even more out of place.

In truth, we must view these Pesukim as a microcosmic progression. These two Pesukim teach us how the world should function, and what the Jewish people’s role in it is. When Hashem created the world, He needed a physical embodiment of His values. He needed the people He formed to form their own society reflecting godliness, possessing Kedushah. Man was created “BeTzelem Elokim,” “in the image of Hashem” (BeReishit 1:27), not in visual image only, but in his actions and morals.

What Hashem ultimately wants out of this world, at least indicated as such by various sources, is quite simple: a monotheistic, moral, functioning society. The Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach are just this. One of the seven prohibits serving “other” gods and one forbids cursing the name of God. The other five, however, are all tenets of a proper, just society: Establishing courts, prohibition of murder, prohibition of theft, etc. However, Am Yisrael is tasked to take this a step further. We have the job of being a light unto the nations, displaying how the perfect society can function. We have very detailed laws outlining how our society should function, painting a much clearer image for the rest of the world to look at. The seven Noahide laws, though they are the ultimate command to the world, are vague and leave a lot of detail to be filled in. This is the purpose of Am Yisrael – to embody the godly society to the highest degree. We portray a higher level of civilization than actually needed in the world to teach the world around us, hoping it can achieve a desired level.

Where does this emerge from in our Parashah? Hashem first tells Moshe, “Dabeir El Kol Adat Bnei Yisrael,” “tell the entire nation of Bnei Yisrael” (VaYikra 19:2), addressing them in a single body. This is a command concerning the status of the nation, not just individual requirements. Next is the command to be Kadosh, holy. The reason behind this command is solely because “Kadosh Ani Hashem Elokeichem” (ibid.). The source for the quest toward Kedushah is to mimic Hashem, to achieve godliness.

The third Pasuk of this week’s Parashah concludes with the command to keep Shabbat. This is a quintessential Mitzvah that applies solely to the Jewish people, one that distinguishes them from other nations. Shabbat’s goal on a universal scale is to cool off the workload, to teach the value of rest. It has many more internal elements, but Shabbat is literally a day of rest, regimented for the Jews, but meant to teach the entire world to embrace rest as the only way not to work society to death. This is why it is “Shabbetotai” to Hashem, My Shabbat. Even though it appears to be for Bnei Yisrael alone, this command ultimately comes back to His functioning world.

What of Yir’at Av VaEim? Hashem yearns for a fully functioning society; to demonstrate this, He commands us on a small scale: the family. A family is a society unto itself, a little group of people living together and contributing to their common good. To have a proper family, there must be respect and order. Respect the heads of the household, and play by their rules. Metaphorically and exegetically, this is a command to obey, or at least recognize, the authority of Hashem. (This is also found in the Aseret HaDibrot, where Kibud Av VaEim is found in the “Bein Adam LaMakom” half of the Dibrot.) On a large scale, establish a proper civilization; on a small scale, secure a family. As mentioned earlier, a family is a unit found amongst all nations of the world; so is the command to fear the parents, and so is the command to establish a properly functioning civilization.

In a simplified equation, Kedushah is the status of godliness. It is not restricted to the Jewish people, nor is it limited to a list of commandments. It is a set of values that stems from the nuclear family, to the greater communal family, to the universal family that we all compose.

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