The Torah’s Heart

Posted on May 4, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה׳ אֱלֹ-הֵיכֶֽם׃

“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your G-d am holy.”

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins with this commandment. If I were an Israelite, just weeks out of slavery, and was told to “be holy because G-d is holy,” I would be completely confused. In fact, as a 21st Century adult, the commandment is vague at the very least. What does it mean to “be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy?”

Fortunately, the following verses sketch out the ways (and some means) to “be holy.” Here are a few:

  • Don’t pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Be kind to those who have less)
  • You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • You shall not defraud your fellow. (Tell that to the legions of phone, text and email scammers!).
  • The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (Be a fair and honest employer)
  • You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. (Two of the best metaphors in the Torah.)
  • You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kin fairly.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

Many of these admonitions are punctuated by “I am the Lord your G-d.” This is G-d telling us, “this is how to act. And if you do so, you’ll be walking the path I’m trying to show you. This is what it means to be holy.” This is what it means to be in the image of God (b’tzelem elokim)

Of course the list is punctuated by the most famous of these ethical constructs, “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your neighbor as yourself.) Called the “Golden Rule” by many traditions, a version of this was (“what is hateful to you don’t do to anyone else”—or words to the that effect) attributed to Rabbi Hillel when he was asked to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. “All the rest (meaning the rest of the Torah) is commentary. Go study.”

The Torah (translated, “teaching”) is our guide. Our ultimate textbook for being holy, for being in G-d’s image, walking in G-d’s ways. For “being” Torah. And Kedoshim, a few chapters to the left of the Torah’s exact center (where the human heart lies in our anatomy), is, quite literally, it’s at its heart.