Being Holy and Living a Balanced Judaism
In a perfect world, we would expect one’s ethical behavior to be directly linked to one’s religious behavior. Philosophers, scientists, and psychologists have been debating for centuries whether religion and ethics exist independently of each other, or if they are inexorably connected. Can atheists possess a genuine moral and ethical code if there is no absolute bedrock of Divinely revealed law to which they can moor their beliefs? Conversely, what about people of faith who cheat in their financial dealings? These are not easy questions to answer, which is why they are still being debated to this day.
If Hashem felt that man is perfectly capable of charting his own moral and ethical destiny, why give us a Torah replete with morals and ethics? We conclude that there is an absolute, Divine moral and ethical code. While it is possible for every individual to arrive at moral boundaries based on logic and reason, the mind is not always a reliable instrument of truth, and someone can easily be deluded into thinking that something unethical or immoral is the opposite.
Mishpatim & Chukim
Despite this, our Sages observe that there are different categories of mitzvot. Some are Mishpatim, or what others call “natural law,” that which man would have arrived at using his own human intellect even if the Torah had not commanded us. Others are Chukim (statutes) and Eidot (testimonies), laws which without a Torah, we would not have necessarily intuited on our own. Because of Chazal’s delineation between the different kinds of mitzvot, we tend to think that there is a strong dividing line – be it psychological or ontological – between the two types. This would certainly explain why some Jews observe one kind of law with more emphasis over the other. Some are very cautious about “halakhah,” and don’t care as much about certain ethical imperatives. Others are more fixated on morals and ethics and deemphasize the more “religious” aspects of Shabbat, Kashrus, and the like.
When we look at the verses in Parshat Kedoshim, however, we don’t see any kind of delineation between the two kinds of mitzvot. If anything, it seems like the Torah is deliberately grouping all different kinds of commandments together. After Hashem commands us to be “holy” – “קדושים תהיו” (19:1), He provides different examples of holiness. The Torah starts with what we would normally identify as “religious” laws: revering parents, observing Shabbat, not worshipping idols, and sacrificial laws. But then, in the same breath, the Torah instructs us how to provide for the poor, how to ethically treat our employees and others to whom we owe money by not withholding wages, not cheating, not bearing grudges, and so forth (19:13-18).
That in itself is an important lesson: “Holiness” is a holistic principle that does not allow for compartmentalization of one’s religious persona. For an individual to be truly “holy,” one’s fealty to both Hashem’s laws and the image of God with which we were created must be comprehensive and not consigned to one area of life over another. That is, to be “holy,” one must be “wholly” committed.
Rav Yaakov Leiner (in Beit Yaakov) observed that if we look at some of the laws cited above, we will see that in reality there is a common, unitary theme shared by all the mitzvot, and that the divisions between the different kinds of mitzvot are largely artificial. Let’s take two mitzvot which appear at the very beginning (19:3): We are commanded to revere our parents and to observe the Sabbath. When looked at more deeply, our relationship with our parents is a metaphor for our relationship with Hashem. Our parents gave birth to us; they raised us and provided us with the necessary tutelage as we grew and matured.
Often, parents of small children, out of a desire to give them a sense of independence, will conceal from them just how much in control they are. Imagine the parent of a toddler who is just learning to walk, standing behind the child ready to catch them as they wobble unsteadily with their first steps. The child may feel that he or she is walking independently and is unaware that the parent is walking closely behind, directing them where to go, and ready to catch them if they fall. Such is the relationship between God and every human being. Hashem grants us the illusory sense of independence and autonomy. The commandment to “revere” our parents is thus not only a mitzvah to treat our parents with respect, but also to retain in our minds that despite our personal autonomy, we are still all dependents of Hashem, and are powerless to do anything without His tutelage.
This mitzvah corresponds to the commandment forbidding the withholding of payment from someone to whom we are indebted (19:13). Just as we cannot deny what we owe a benefactor, we can also not deny that Hashem is truly in control of our lives. The truly “holy” person sees no difference in these mitzvot because they are rooted in the same reality of paying those to whom we owe their due.
Shabbat & Ethics
The mitzvah of Shabbat observance has a similar correspondence to ethical behavior. Our Sages teach that Shabbat is “מעין עולם הבא”, a semblance of the World to Come (TB Berachos 57b). Hashem chose to give us a taste of our future “wages” with the weekly gratification of the beautiful spiritual ambience of Shabbat. While Hashem could have reserved all of our rewards for the future, He wanted us to feel a sense of immediate satisfaction without having to defer all of the fruits of our efforts to the afterlife. According to the Arizal, the mitzvah of Shabbat thus corresponds to the mitzvah of paying our employees on time, immediately upon the completion of their job. This mitzvah is also part of the mandate to be holy, and thus appears shortly after the mitzvah of Shabbat (in 19:13).
Rav Lainer continues on this holistic path in explaining the other mitzvot of our parsha. Overall, a pattern emerges that holiness is really about seeing the bigger picture of trying to make the world a better place by living the mitzvot holistically. We can only accomplish this through our ritual observance as well as emulating God’s behavior as a benevolent and caring being who takes care of every creature in His universe. All the mitzvot flow to the same outlet and to the same common theme.
Judaism as a Fitted Sheet
A rebbe of mine once explained that observing Judaism is like trying to make a bed with a fitted sheet that is just a tad too small to fit over all the corners properly. You pull one end of the sheet over one corner, and then the opposite corner pops up. When it comes to our religious commitments, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and mitzvot that we choose to emphasize while deemphasizing others. The important thing is to recognize this and to try and be respectful of those who are coming from the opposite direction. We all augment each other’s deficiencies with our own contributions to the spiritual fabric of our world.
The irony is that we sometimes have such tunnel-vision in identifying what we consider to be true Judaism using our own particularized lens with self-defined parameters. Anything outside of those parameters is either “treif” or “fanaticism.” We’d do well to remember the definition of holiness, as a holistic embrace of all the commandments, since they all have one unitary theme from the same unitary God. The person who strives for holiness sees value in all the approaches to reach Hashem, even those which run contrary to one’s own chosen path.
May we succeed all together in our aspirations toward holiness and achieve a sense of balance that will lead to the Redemption, bb”a.