“At the Heart of Holiness”

Posted on April 26, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.


From Parashat Kedoshim, the second of our two parshiyot we read this Shabbat, we learn this golden rule from Vayikra 19:18: V’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha, Love your neighbor as yourself.

In the midst of the Holiness Code that spans Chapters 17-26, this biblical quote potentially sums up the entirety of the Torah, as it is written: “One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!’”

When we look at verse 18 in its entirety, this Talmudic story brings out the meaning of  this verse that much more: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” At the heart of the Holiness Code in the central book of the Torah, we are reminded by this verse that we have the potential to understand the holiness of God through our personal experiences and our interpersonal relationships. 

In certain traditional Jewish circles, children start their Torah learning not with the book of Genesis, but with the book of Leviticus. But by truly understanding Vayikra 19:18, we are also reminded of the beginning of the Torah, when God created us B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, we were each given holiness, that spark of the divine that dwells within every human being.

In the middle of this biblical book detailing the various sacrifices offered by our Israelite ancestors, we find this golden rule nestled among these details. We are reminded that while our prayers have now replaced these korbanot, these offerings, that at the heart of it all, we can find holiness: holiness within ourselves and empathy towards others. Loving ourselves and thinking of how our thoughts, words and actions can affect others can help each of us to make choices that will help us increase in holiness, ultimately emulating the divine holiness given to each of us back at the beginning of the Torah.