Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The word Kedoshim means separated. You should be separated from the rest of the world. This separation is both on a national level and on a personal level. On a national level there are seventy nations and one nation, not seventy one nations. “Va’avdil eschem min ha’amim liheyos li – And I have separated you from the nations that you should be mine” (Vayikra 20:26). The conduct of the seventy nations is regulated by seven commandments but the conduct of the Jews is regulated by 613 commandments. On a personal level. too, the Jew is to further separate himself from his animal instincts. He may not eat all that he likes, he may not cohabit with everyone he likes and he is required to do many things that he would not naturally do, like observe the Shabbos, wear tefillin, give charity, etc.

Why is the Jew to be separated in this way? “Ki kadosh Ani Hashem Elokeichem – because I the L-rd your G-d am separated” (19:2).


What does this mean? How is G-d separated from anything? He is ubiquitous and all powerful, Kol Yachol? After all, we pray daily, “Atah gibor le’olam Hashem – You G-d are eternally mighty.”

But how do we define “gibor”? “Eizahu gibor, hakovesh es yitzroh.” strength lies in restraint. G-d, so to speak, restrains Himself from what would otherwise be His overpowering reactions. G-d is Erech Apayim, slow to anger and slow to react. Even though the whole world belongs to him, he retreated from His exclusive possession of earth and handed it to man. And when Moshe beseeched G-d to control His spontaneous reactions and save the erring Jews from annihilation, He listened and separated Himself from His justified anger. So if G-d can separate himself from His spontaneous instincts, we should be able to do that too.

Even though G-d has given the earth to man, He has not retired from running the world. Shabbos is not a statute erected to commemorate that G-d created the world in the past, but rather it is an acknowledgment of His involvement in it in the present. As we say in our morning prayers: “HaMechadesh bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishis – He renews daily the work of creation.”

Just as man cannot conceive of his life on this earth without recognizing the role of his parents who brought him here, so too must he recognize the role of G-d as the third partner in fashioning his existence. That is why the injunction to observe Shabbos and to honor ones parents is placed in the same sentence (19:3).

But there is more to it than that. For those who believe that man descended from a monkey, why would one honor one’s parents? The closer you are to the monkey, the less honor you deserve. My grandparents did not know what a computer was, and my great grandparents did not know what a car was. They didn’t even have a telephone, let alone a smart phone. So why should I honor them? They were primitive and I am smart. They should honor me. When they get sick and old, they should be banished to a mountain top and left to die.

That is the reverse of the Torah’s approach. The Jew does not descend from a monkey. He is a direct descendant of the Jews who stood at Sinai and heard the word of G-d. The closer the Jew is to the Revelation, the source of all knowledge, the smarter he is. The further he is removed from the Revelation, the more ignorant he has become. Were it not for our parents forming that link in the chain of tradition that handed down the written and the oral Torah to us, we would know nothing. We would have lost our unique station as G-d’s ambassadors on earth and with it we would have lost our mission to pass on G-d’s message to all of mankind at the end of time. That is why we have to honor our parents in the same way as we honor G-d. They form the base of the triangle the apex of which is G-d Himself.

Of course it is tempting to drop the 613 mitzvot and rely on nature and fate. After all, we are all subject to a predestined fate determined by the star under which we were born. Some of us are predestined to be rich, some to be poor, some to be kind and some to be cruel. Let the chips fall where they may as we follow the luck of our star. True, we can be masters of our own fate and override our destiny by believing in G-d and keeping His mitzvot. We can follow the example of Avraham who was told that he could defeat nature and produce a child at the age of 99 if he just rose above astrology and let G-d into his life. But like our forefathers in the wilderness, who yearned for the life they enjoyed in Egypt which was untethered to the keeping of the mitzvot and who said, “Zacharnu es ha’dagah asher nochal bemitzrayim chinam – We remember the fish we ate in Miztrayim free (of the mitzvot)” (Bamidbar 11:5), we might prefer to cast our lot with the luck of the stars rather than work hard to change our fate. But we are told to resist this temptation. “Al tifnu el ha’elilim” (Vayikra 19:4): do not to look up to the stars and do not turn them into the gods of your fate.

The theme of restraint and separation continues in Parshas Kedoshim. There are times in our lives when we may yearn to thank G-d for all that is well with us and share a meal with Him. So we bring a Shelamim sacrifice at a time of our choosing, “Lir’tzonchem tiz’bachuhu” (19:5). But we have to realize that if we are to sit at G-d’s table, we have to abide by His rules, not ours. Even if we serve Him a meal, He is the host, not us. We must serve him with fresh meat, not left-over meat. It must be all consumed within two days of its slaughter. It may not be preserved with salt. Any leftovers must be destroyed (19:6).

And the theme of restraining one’s natural urges continues: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you pick the stalks that have fallen (19:9). “Le’ani ve’lager ta’azov osam – Leave them for the poor and the stranger” (19:20)

Why on earth would I leave the fruits of my hard earned labor to the poor? Is it not enough that I don’t steal from others? I have to support them too? But we have to resist the urge to keep everything we earn for ourselves. After all, the One who gives us the strength to make a living could remove the battery any time and the motor would stop. And besides, you never gain by overreaching because, as Ben Zomah said (Yoma 38a), what you earn is predetermined, so there is no need to deprive others of what is theirs. You will get what is meant for you without taking what belongs to others. So leave it over for the poor and the stranger. The word “azov” means you should abandon it as if you declared it ownerless (Malbim to Ruth 2:16), as if it never belonged to you. That way, the poor will not be ashamed to take it. This is what Boaz did for Ruth when he ordered his team of workers, “Ve’gam shol tosholu la min hatzevasim va’azavtem ve’likta ve’lo tiga’aru bah – Not only are you to let her glean among the sheaves, but you must also deliberately forget some stalks from the heaps and leave them for her to glean without embarrassing her” (Ruth 2:16).

Charity is difficult. It is a hallmark of self-restraint. So much is it part of the DNA of Judaism that when a gentile wishes to become a Jew, of all of the 613 commandments we could tell him, and there is no time to teach him all of them, we focus on the laws of Leket, Shikcha and Pe’ah (Yevamos 47b), because they are so counter intuitive to human nature.

One of the ethical training mechanisms of the Torah is to push the pendulum of human behavior to the extreme opposite direction of ones instincts. On the extreme bad side of human behavior is theft. On the extreme good side of human behavior is charity. If you drive on the far right, you are less likely to stray to the left. If you give charity as you are commanded to do in Chapter 19 verses 9 and 10, you are less likely to violate the prohibition of theft in verse 11. If you don’t steal, you are less likely to violate the prohibition in verse 12 of swearing falsely in G-d’s name, which you might otherwise be tempted to do in order to protect your reputation. And if you do swear falsely to protect your own name, you will have desecrated the name of G-d by using Him to cover up your own sins.

Similarly, if you are careful not to violate the prohibition at the end of verse 13 of keeping your worker waiting for payment overnight, you are less likely to violate the prohibition of robbery at the beginning of verse 13.

Finally, “Lo telech rachil be’amecha – Do not go around as a talebearer among your people” (19:16). Rashi explains that the word “rachil” refers to a peddler who sells spices and perfumes. One of the ways of making oneself smell like a rose is to denigrate others. Everybody likes to hear a spicy salacious story about someone else. But, as the saying goes, Al titchabed beklon chavercha: do not elevate yourself over the disgrace of others.


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Raphael Grunfeld received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Rabbi Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed.” Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].