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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

Parashat Kedoshim—the second of the two Parshiyot we read this Shabbat—begins with two simple yet challenging words—“Kedoshim Tihiyu—Be Holy.”  If someone were to tell me to “Be Good” I think I would have a fairly good idea of what that means. But “Be Holy?” Surely the Torah is not asking us to spend our days sitting on a mountaintop with beatific expressions on our faces as we strum our guitars and sing praises to Hashem. But does this command mean that every Jew is supposed to lock him/herself in the Beit Midrash and night and day be involved in nothing but study, prayer and religious contemplation to the exclusion of all else? Are we being commanded to become ascetics, to deprive ourselves of all physical and material pleasures?

The Midrash, which Rashi quotes, has a simple answer. In Parashat Acharei Mot—the first half of the Shabbat’s dual Torah reading—we read the list of forbidden relationships. “Be holy” in this context simply means, “Take all of this seriously and separate yourselves from these forbidden relationships.” 

Ramban, however, argues, in what I consider to be one of his two most important commentaries on the Torah, that that is not what the Torah has in mind. The Torah, Ramban explains, has given us a very clear list of what we are not permitted to eat and drink and of forbidden relationships. That means, of course, that we are permitted to eat and drink that which is not forbidden and to enjoy physical relationships which are not forbidden. The problem, Ramban continues, is that the fact that certain activities are permitted does not mean that we should engage in them without restraint and allow them to become the major preoccupations of our lives. There are no specific prohibitions of gluttony, or of excessive drinking, or of obsession with physical relationships but, asserts Ramban, one who does adopt this lifestyle is a Naval B’Reshut HaTorah, which I would define as a scoundrel or a disgusting individual who hides behind the apparent authority of Torah Law. The message of Kedoshim Tihiyu, writes Ramban, is that now that the Torah has taught us the laws of Kashrut and of forbidden relationships we are admonished to behave ourselves, to internalize the moral values inherent in those commandments and not be foolish enough to think that unrestrained involvement in what is not specifically forbidden is an acceptable way of life.

What is the second crucial commentary by Rambam to which I alluded above? That Ramban appears in Parashat Va-etchanan which is always read during the summer on the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. The Torah instructs us V’assita HaYashar V’HaTov B’Ainai Hashem—and you shall do that which is just and good in the eyes of God.” Ramban writes that although the Torah includes many, many interpersonal Mitzvot to regulate our behavior with our fellow human beings, the Torah simply could not list every possible human interaction and how we should act in that circumstance. Instead, the Torah gave us a sufficient number of these Mitzvot Bain Adam La’Chavairo so that we are able to generalize and perceive the outline of the Torah perspective on proper interpersonal behavior. Based on this, each of us can create an intuitive sense of that which is just and good in God’s eyes so that we can direct our own behavior accordingly. 

Halakha, of course, is the ultimate set of rules and regulations. But a Torah observant life neither means that any activity which does not come with a big black FORBIDDEN sign is a good, moral or holy choice nor that the only guide to proper behavior is to be found printed in a code of laws or in a rabbinic opinion. The Torah expects each of us to appreciate the values inherent in both the ritual and interpersonal commandments and to use our minds and the intuition which is based on Torah study to design a mode of behavior which reflects those values, and which goes beyond—but, of course, never replaces or negates normative Halakha—that which we are commanded to do or not to do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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