The Torah states in Parsha Bereshit that Man was made in the image of God, imago dei. In Parsha Kedoshim Man is told how to live their lives like God, imitatio dei.
The Parsha begins with a simple command: “You shall be holy; for I your God am holy.” Later, the command is repeated, with an additional note: “… you shall be holy unto Me; for I God am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that ye should be Mine”. It was this life of holiness that would set Israel apart from its neighbour.
The text that follows the opening pronouncement gives substance to this rather ethereal concept, and much like the forceful exhortation of Parsha Acharei Mot, was intended to reinforce the notion that Israel would be different than the other peoples, and most importantly, that the nation’s duty was to maintain that distinction. Pointedly, holiness would not be achieved by practicing asceticism and abstinence; rather, it would be accomplished by living a life of self-discipline and temperance. It was a life that every Israelite could experience; holiness was not to be the personal realm of the Priests nor was it to be a singular pursuit.
Briefly, the laws described in Parsha Kedoshim cover a broad spectrum of activities – a prohibition not to eat the fruit of a tree until its fifth year, the outlawing of divinations and the interpretation of omens, and the arcane activity of “eating over blood.’ The latter law has been interpreted by the Ramban to forbid heathen rites. Indeed it was these sorts of laws that initially distinguished the Israelites from the neighbouring peoples.
Interwoven in the text are dictates that reflect, directly and indirectly, the Ten Commandments. The first two mentioned are the universal direction to revere one’s parents and the uncommon mandate to observe the Sabbath. There are mirror statements forbidding the making of molten gods, taking God’s name in vain and bearing false witness, here described as being a gossipmonger.
There are other laws, which can easily be interpreted as mandating a high level of ethical and moral conduct. The Israelites were to leave the gleanings of the harvest and thus ensure that the poor could eat. There were some prohibitions against “dishonest dealings”, a rather broad term, but one that would protect the social fabric of the community. The Parsha also speaks to a progressive labour law – “the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning” – requiring the immediate payment of employees. No doubt this particular practice was much appreciated by the common man, who often lived at a subsistent level.
Parsha Kedoshim professes a very lofty objective. The various laws and statement of principle it promulgates are intended to ensure that Israel would always retain a special status in the eyes of God. Rather than achieving this exalted state through the ritual observance – the holy places, holy times, holy things, and holy practices, so painstakingly detailed in other portions of the Torah – Israel would have to adhere to an ethos of “deeds of loving-kindness” or Gemillut Chassidim, whose essence is captured by the simple but highly renowned and oft reframed verse; “thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself”.