Drash on Parashat Kedoshim 2014

To Be Set Apart

A Drash for Parashat Kedoshim

Rabbi Don Levy


I have two children.  As with many parents who have more than one child, my wife Clara and I found that the two were as different as night and day when growing up.  Both are in university now.  They both attended a Jewish high school, but up to year eight they attended public schools.  They were always two of only a handful of Jewish kids in their various schools.

Our son always reveled in his Jewish-ness.  Whenever his teachers invited me to make a presentation on some Jewish occasion in his class – as usually happened a few times a year because I was the local Jewish chaplain – he would take delight about his Abba coming to class to share with the other children something that was special for us. Occasionally my wife would go to class to make the presentation, in which case our son got to show off an additional special possession:  his Israeli mother!

But our daughter had a different attitude.  She used to dread such occasions.  She didn’t want to be singled out as different from her classmates. And she would be especially embarrassed if it was her Ima who went to class to make the presentation. She didn’t want her classmates to get a good look at her ‘foreign’ mother.

Many Jewish parents can doubtless relate to this experience. We want our children to take delight in our unique traditions.  But we don’t want those traditions to seem onerous to them.  We understand that children often loathe being different from their peers. Understanding how important it is for growing children to develop healthy peer relationships, we try to minimize those differences, and help them fit in and make friends.

And yet…in this week’s Torah portion we read:  Be holy; for I, the Lord your God am Holy.

‘Holy,’ in this context – kadosh in Hebrew – means set apart, distinctive, reserved for a specific purpose.  So here, in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, we’re told that we’re davka to be different.

And the reason we’re to be different, is because God has a unique purpose in mind for us – a special calling, if you will.  If we are just like everybody else, how can we serve a unique purpose?

Much conflict in Jewish life today, focuses on what this unique purpose is. Traditionally, it is to serve as witnesses to God’s Presence and God’s Love in a world of capricious gods whose cults often terrorized their adherents.   In our day, in our particular Jewish circles, we often see our purpose in other terms: standing up for the oppressed, for justice, for ethical values. 

There’s also ample conflict concerning exactly what form our distinctiveness should take.  Are we to look different from other people?  This afternoon as the sun was setting over Surfers Paradise, my wife and I – wearing indistinct street clothes – were out walking and passed the local Orthodox rabbi and a number of his sons walking the other way towards their shule for the evening service for the Eighth Day of Pesach.  They were, of course, all dressed distinctively in their black suits and hats. Anybody would know on sight exactly who and what they are.  In contrast, Clara and I were entirely anonymous.  I won’t say we felt self-conscious, only that it got me to thinking.

Some of the specifics as to our distinctiveness that are detailed in the 19th chapter of Leviticus have to do with appearance: the way we groom and dress ourselves, avoiding gashing of the skin and tattooing.  And they also have to do with occult practices: avoiding communication with the dead, fortune-telling, and other forms of occult.

Well, there we go – to hell in a handbasket!  Whilst Jews my age are probably only rarely tattooed, I’m guessing that among those 20 years younger many are.  So I don’t sport any “tat’s.”  But…I’ve been known to amuse myself by reading a horoscope here and there.

But also included in the list of distinctions, are things that are likely to resonate more deeply.  For example, the practice of leaving the corners of one’s field un-harvested, and of not gleaning the fields or vineyards.  For those of us not engaged in agriculture, we usually read these as requiring that one set aside a portion of one’s increase for the less fortunate.

So there is a principle beyond dispute; we’re supposed to be holy, set apart, distinctive, reserved for a specific purpose.  But the details of exactly what that purpose is, and exactly what form that distinctiveness should be, are the stuff of long discussions into the night.

And the important thing is that we have these discussions.  Different Jews will arrive at different solutions to the questions posed above. But we are used to a high degree of ‘noisiness’ in Jewish life; we are used to having plenty of disagreement on the details, even when we agree on the broad principles.

So what about my daughter, who when younger did not want to stand out as a Jew?  Thankfully, she got past that stage.  It helped that she attended a Jewish high school.  Last week, at uni in Boulder, Colorado, she needed little prompting from Clara and me to seek out a Seder to attend.  And when we Skyped with her later in the week, she was munching on matzo in her dorm room. Talking with her, watching her in the webcam as she dribbled matzo crumbs on the desk in front of her, we thought: Yes!

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