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From Priest to People (Kedoshim, Covenant & Conversation)

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28.04.2022

Something fundamental happens at the beginning of this parsha and the story is one of the greatest, if rarely acknowledged, contributions of Judaism to the world.

Until now, Vayikra has been largely about sacrifices, purity, the Sanctuary, and the Priesthood. It has been, in short, about a holy place, holy offerings, and the elite and holy people – Aaron and his descendants – who minister there. Suddenly, in chapter 19, the text opens up to embrace the whole of the people and the whole of life:

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Speak to all the community of Israel. Say: ‘Be holy, for I am holy; I, the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:1–2)

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Speak to all the community of Israel. Say: ‘Be holy, for I am holy; I, the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:1–2)

This is the first and only time in Leviticus that so inclusive an address is commanded. The Sages explained this to mean that the contents of the chapter were proclaimed by Moses to a formal gathering of the entire nation (hak’hel). It is the people as a whole who are commanded to “be holy”, not just an elite group of priests. It is life itself that is to be sanctified, as the chapter goes on to make clear. Holiness is to be made manifest in the way the nation makes its clothes and plants its fields, in the way justice is administered, workers are paid, and business conducted. The vulnerable – the deaf, the blind, the elderly, and the stranger – are to be afforded special protection. The whole society is to be governed by love, without resentments or revenge.

What we witness here, in other words, is the radical democratisation of holiness. All ancient societies had priests. We have encountered four instances in the Torah thus far of non-Israelite priests: Malchizedek, Abraham’s contemporary, described as a Priest of God Most High; Potiphera, Joseph’s father-in-law; the Egyptian Priests as a whole, whose land Joseph did not nationalise; and Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite Priest. The priesthood was not unique to Israel, and everywhere it was an elite. Here for the first time, we find a code of holiness directed to the people as a whole. We are all called on to be holy.

In a strange way, though, this comes as no surprise. The idea, if not the details, had already been hinted at. The most explicit instance comes in the prelude to the great covenant-making ceremony at Mount Sinai when God tells Moses to say to the people:

“Now, if you faithfully heed My Voice and keep My covenant, you will be My treasure among all the peoples, although the whole earth is Mine. A kingdom of priests and a holy nation you shall be to Me. (Ex. 19:5–6)

“Now, if you faithfully heed My Voice and keep My covenant, you will be My treasure among all the peoples, although the whole earth is Mine. A kingdom of priests and a holy nation you shall be to Me. (Ex. 19:5–6)

Meaning, a kingdom all of whose members are to be in some sense priests, and a nation that is in its entirety holy.

The first intimation is much earlier still, in the first chapter of Genesis, with its monumental assertion: Advertisement

“Let Us make humankind in Our image, in Our likeness.” So God created humankind in His own image: in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:26–27)

“Let Us make humankind in Our image, in Our likeness.” So God created humankind in His own image: in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:26–27)

What is revolutionary in this declaration is not that a human being could be in the image of God. That is precisely how kings of Mesopotamian city states and Pharaohs of Egypt were regarded. They were seen as the representatives, the living images, of the gods. That is how they derived their authority. The Torah’s revolution is the statement that not some but all humans share this dignity. Regardless of class, colour, culture, or creed, we are all in the image and likeness of God.

Thus was born the cluster of ideas that, though they took many millennia to be realised, led to the distinctive culture of the West: the non-negotiable dignity of the human person, the idea of human rights, and eventually, the political and economic expressions of these ideas – liberal democracy on the one hand, and the free market on the other.

The point is not that these ideas were fully formed in the minds of human beings during the period of biblical history. Manifestly, this is not so. The concept of human rights is a product of the seventeenth century. Democracy was not fully implemented until the twentieth. But already in Genesis 1 the seed was planted. That is what Jefferson meant when he wrote: Advertisement

God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?[1]

God who gave us life gave us........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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