That title sounds odd…but it’s true. God says so in Haftoras Tzav: “For I did not speak to your forefathers and I did not command them on the day I took them out of Egypt on the matters of sacrifice”. (Jeremiah; 7:22)
But we know God did in fact dedicate many Torah words addressing the commands of sacrifice. How do we understand this quote? Radak says the next verse offers the answer:
“For it is rather this matter that I commanded you saying: ‘listen to My voice and I will be for you a God and you will be to Me a nation’…”
The message is clear: God does not desire us to merely go through the ‘motions’ of the mitzvahs. That is what He means that He did not command us on sacrifice: on sacrifice per se, we are not commanded. Radak says mitzvahs have an objective, and are not a goal in themselves. The objective is that through mitzvah, man accepts God, His authority and infinite knowledge, and follows Him…as the second verse states above. Mitzvahs are to redirect man from his egotistical and instinctual focus, towards God. Mere, technical actions (mitzvahs) cannot perfect man, since we possess intellect as our primary feature. Similarly, an automobile cannot be perfected as transportation, regardless of the perfected paint job, if we do not attend to the engine. Thus, mitzvahs address our values, and if only performed by rote, the goal is missed.
We must move past the performances and respect His authority, accept our lowly status as created entities, and live by His word, as any intelligent person would do. If however one performs mitzvahs without understanding them, or with the notion that the very act of the mitzvah is all God desires, then that person misses the objective.
Parshas Kedoshim teaches this lesson. One might think our “Book of Laws” is just that: a life where the action is all which God desires, and where the internal world is irrelevant. “I did the mitzvah”…people say to themselves with a false sense of total satisfaction. But the fact that the Torah must include a separate Parsha to teach this, i.e., Parshas Kedoshim…teaches many lessons.
Perfection is not Legislated
Without Parshas Kedoshim, a false message would be communicated. Man might think he is to gain perfection through rote activities. But Kedoshim teaches a great fundamental.
Man typically seeks instinctual gratification. But his conscience weighs on him. He figures a solution: “I’ll keep the Torah, but then when I am done praying and studying my token 10 minutes today, I will immerse myself in many permitted foods, sexual activity, and drink. I’ll do the bare minimum to satisfy the commands, and with the rest of my time I will satisfy my instinctual, and I’ll feel justified as living in line with Torah.” These are the unspoken but undeniable sentiments that pervade the thoughts of so many Jews. But why does the Torah allow so many Parshas and commands to go by, offering man this false assumption? Why doesn’t each mitzvah have right next to it in the Torah, the underlying, moral and intellectual perfection? Perhaps by doing so, another error would be made, as people would say, “Oh…THAT’s why we have that mitzvah? Well, I already possess that perfected trait, and therefore, I am exempt from this law”. With such responses, the Torah would not be upheld, and would quickly vanish from our people.
Therefore, the Torah laws must be written without qualification. But the Torah must also correct the first error: man’s assumption that the act per se is all God wants. Therefore, God includes Kedoshim. Kedoshim means “separate” or sanctified, as in separating ourselves from our instincts. For man can follow all of the laws, and still overindulge. God thereby teaches that the mitzvahs are only Step 1.
Additionally, as wise Rabbi mentioned, the Torah cannot legislate perfection. Similarly, the Torah cannot tell man what he believes. We can be told what to “do”, but not what to believe. Thus, the Torah cannot tell a person to have the trait of kindness as a command. But it can guide man in actions that can engender this trait, and the Torah does underline this and many other traits in other areas.
No matter how much we want to carry a pristine, righteous self-image, the truth must be admitted: we are instinctual beings. No one is born perfected. No one is missing the ego drive, or any other instinct. And these drives make us feel good when satisfied. All this must be admitted, if we are to realize the lessons in Kedoshim – being sanctified.
How Torah Perfects Man
The Written Torah teaches us the individual headings of each mitzvah. And depending on the mitzvah’s primary focus, certain aspects are highlighted and some not addressed, in the Written Law. But these are merely the broad strokes. The Oral Law (Mishna and Talmud) then elucidate all details of the objects of mitzvah and the “who, how and when”. And although many of the Prophets and Writings address the true, underlying perfection targeted by the mitzvahs, the Five Books cannot be bereft of such a fundamental. Kedoshim is vital.
Kedoshim begins by subduing man’s ego, as taught by Rabbi Reuven Mann. “Fear of God is the beginning of knowledge”. (Proverbs; 1:7) Man is taught to fear his parents, and to accept God, through Sabbath. These two laws along with setting up courts were the first laws the Jews received in Mara, before arriving at Sinai. This is sensible, since God was progressively shedding the Egyptian authority and bringing us to accept Him. By drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea, we finally had no Egypt to run back to, as the Jews desired so many times when confronted with trials. And to now redirect their need for authority towards God, God gave the commands that cause man to accept authority: honoring parents, following courts, and observing Sabbath. Of course the first two target the acceptance of God. These laws are a necessary backdrop for all others. Thus, Kedoshim commences with them.
Man has many emotions, so our deviations are many. Although we are already warned against idolatry, the next verse (Lev. 19:4) warns us not to “turn” towards alien gods. Ibn Ezra says this refers to the “turning” of the heart…i.e., emotional consideration. To be truly Kadosh – holy – we must go further than simply not bowing to idols in action: we must also not consider them a reality at all. So we must remove this from our hearts. Kedoshim is telling us that our inner corruptions are many, what those corruptions are, and how to refrain.
Specifically, Kedoshim is urging our actions and thoughts be exclusively dedicated to God. That is Kedoshim’s key message.
Man constantly seeks instinctual gratification. By studying Kedoshim, we learn where our instinctual natures seek outlets. By restraining ourselves from the more subtle modes of gratification, we become Kadosh. We become the men and women God gave us the potential to be. God also told Abraham to be “tamim”, perfect. Meaning, that God’s will was that Abraham – and mankind – be exclusively dedicated to God in all our actions. One who seeks to perfect himself must dedicate all of his actions in service to God’s will…which is truly the greatest benefit to the self. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy a meal, family, vacation or other pleasures God created. It means all he does targets the goal of acting as God deemed proper.
In this verse (ibid) we are also told not to create molten gods. Why are molten gods singled out here?
This verse has a theme: do not give in to your imaginations. Shema says the same, “Do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes…” How are molten gods different than bowing to the sun, moon, animals, trees, and rocks? How are they more imagined?
In all other cases, at least man is bowing to something real. But when man creates a molten image of a fish-god as did the Philistines, even the object itself is completely removed from reality, and man’s deviation is greater. Man’s imagination created the object of his worship, unlike sun worship where at least the sun is real, and even warrants some level of importance.
Kedoshim also discusses those who curse the deaf and cause the blind to stumble, also referring to offering poor counsel. In such cases, since the victim was unaware of the true, evil intent of the sinner, the sinner might feel innocent. This is because many people’s barometers for sin, is whether they are caught. This subtlety too is mentioned in Kedoshim.
One also sins by retaining the property due other longer then necessary. In this case, one might justify himself by saying “I eventually paid him, so where’s my sin?” But the sin is in not treating another, as he would want for himself. Even in this slight manner, the sinner expressed some aggression towards another human being.
Even man’s intended “good will” is exposed. For some judges pity the poor, or don’t want to defame those who are rich or popular, so they decide the case in their favor…against true justice. Here too man is warned to detect this emotion in himself, and to follow justice, not people.
And what if I didn’t try to save a life…did I really kill the person? Rashi teaches this man is punished. There is so much more to discuss…
Kedoshim is a great study into our nature as instinctually driven creatures. It teaches that the commands alone are not God’s will, but He desires us to desire Him, as Jeremiah taught.
With God’s lessons, we can identify our faults, and train ourselves in His truths. Man can even perform mitzvahs his entire life, and yet, harbor many corruptions. This is what the Torah and Rabbis teach: God does not want our mitzvahs – as an ends – but He desires our perfection. And only patient study under a trained teacher will bring us to understand God’s true will. We cannot imagine it, or obtain it by simple reading. The Mesora – the transmission from Sinai – is essential for learning God’s will, and for learning how to think.