The Book of Vayikra revolves around “Mikdash,” the Temple and Mishkan, beginning with the laws of korbanot (offered in the Mikdash), continuing (in Parshat Shemini) with the laws of tumah and tahara (who may/may not enter the Mikdash) and, starting with today’s parshiyot, the laws of sanctity and holiness (of the Mikdash and the nation). In fact, the basic theme of these parshiyot is expressed in the closing words of the first parsha, the command not to defile the land with moral turpitude, a warning that leads us directly into the opening words of the next parsha: “kedoshim tihiyu,” “you shall be holy.” Rashi throughout his commentary explains that the root idea of “kedusha” is separation. Hashem demands that we be separate, unique, “holier” (no, I didn’t say better) than the other nations. It is the same demand He made of us when we stood at Har Sinai: “V’atem tihiyu li mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh,” to be a holy nation, one dedicated to the service of God.
Surprisingly, our haftarah from Sefer Amos (Perek 9) opens with words that seem to express precisely the opposite view: “Hahlo chiv’nei chushiyim atem li,” “Behold you are just like the Cushite nation to me,” adding that God has taken other nations out of foreign lands just as He had done for Israel! Given this truth, why did Chazal establish that we read this selection that seemingly undermines the very theme of the parsha?
In actuality, this chosen reading is especially pertinent to the theme of kedusha, for it expresses a most important idea: that the “specialness” of Israel is not predicated upon miracles of her past, not on her lineage or “yichus,” nor on Hashem’s promised miracles for future generations. Rather, Israel’s chosenness is based upon their ability to retain the status of kedusha, a standing that can be achieved and kept only through their fealty to God and His mitzvot.
The last aliyot of our weekly parsha focus upon the laws of morality—those relationships that are prohibited by God. The essence of sanctity does not emanate from the Mishkan or the Mikdash. For the Jew, holiness is born from the family unit. It is for this reason that the section of kedusha begins in last week’s parsha with these laws and is followed at the opening of this week’s sedra by Hashem’s command of “kedoshim tihiyu.”
When Israel shrugs off her commitment to sanctity, when she ignores her obligations to the Divine, then she denies her past and thereby she forfeits her future. And, if so, she becomes no different from any other nation, as the navi declares in the opening of our haftarah. In fact, given Hashem’s wonders performed for Israel, their immoral behavior makes them even worse than other nations. Amos expresses this idea so powerfully in the third chapter of his book when he states: “Rak etchem yada’ti…al ken efkod aleichem et kol avonoteichem,” it is because God revealed Himself to us, because we have witnessed His miracles over and over again, that He expects our fidelity to His laws more than He demands it from other peoples!
God expects holiness from His holy nation.
It is simple. Kedusha is not a gift bestowed upon us that makes us special. Kedusha is an obligation we are challenged to fulfill in order to retain the special relationship we have with the Almighty.
An obligation that, when carried out, makes us the “goy kadosh” that Hashem wants us to be.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.