The book of Vayikra teaches about holiness – of place (mishkan) and time (Shabbat and holidays). This week’s parsha adds another innovative idea related to holiness: kedusha is accessible to everyone. How? Parshat Kedoshim (literally, “be holy”) lists important interpersonal mitzvot as the path to holiness.
The eternal significance of this section was highlighted by the great Rabbi Akiva who taught that the verse, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the overarching rule of the Torah. It is no coincidence that this aphorism is taught by Rabbi Akiva, whose life experience underscored the importance of this value. The Talmud teaches that the reason we observe partial mourning customs during the current period of sefirat ha’omer, is in memory of his 24,000 students who died because they did not treat each other with respect. The midrash adds that R. Akiva taught his later students that the earlier ones died because they behaved begrudgingly (עין צרה) toward one another. The rabbinic stories about R. Akiva demonstrate that this was a character trait which he internalized deeply. In the story of the ostracism of his teacher Rabbi Eliezer, it is only Rabbi Akiva who is capable of visiting him to gently deliver such upsetting news. Moreover, the parsha contains a mitzvah to rebuke others (tochecha). The midrash Sifra limits this mitzvah when Rabbi Tarfon teaches that of all the sages only Rabbi Akiva knew how to receive rebuke with love, while others could not.
The mitzvot in parshat Kedoshim suggest that it is in the hands of individuals to choose whether to focus on hate or love, to choose not to stand idly by in the face of bloodshed and to behave with respect toward others. These are an even greater rule of Torah today, after the shoah. These are an even greater rule of Torah today, to ensure the continued flourishing of the State of Israel. May we merit to internalize these values like Rabbi Akiva and make them the essence of a Torah life. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson