The Book of Vayikra consists of10 Sidrot which deal with the concept of holiness in all its manifestations. The first five deal with purification from various sins and diseases. They describe in detail the sacrifices which accompanied the process of purification. They also include the list of pure animals, the meat of which was allowed to be consumed. The second half of the book of Vayikra speaks about holiness in the life of ordinary Jews. The Sidra Acharei Mot focuses on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and the sanctity of family life. The Sidra of Kedoshim deals with holiness in our social interactions, in our relationships with others as well as in our conduct in business in the market place. The Sidra of Emor deals with the sanctity of the Kohanim and the festivals, whilst the Sidrot of Behar and Bechukotai deal with the sanctity of the Land of Israel.
The Sidra of Kedoshim begins by referring to holiness in ordinary daily life. Firstly, we are enjoined to respect our parents, then we are commanded to be honest and charitable. Finally, the Sidra reaches its climax in the commandment which enjoins us to love our neighbour like ourselves.
it is remarkable to note that the Torah begins with the commandment to respect our parents. This emphasises that holiness first takes place in healthy relationships, which begin at home. Gratitude to our parents for bringing us into the world and caring for us is vital. Without it we cannot even respect God, let alone anyone else. Through respect for our parents we learn to respect God who created the universe. We respect God by observing the holiness of the Shabbat which commemorates the creation of the world.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, who flourished in America in the second half of the 20th century, gives a very striking explanation for the juxtaposition of the two laws, to respect parents and observe God’s Sabbaths. Those who reject the divine creation of the world maintain that the world is eternal. They believe also in the concept of the constant progress and development of the human species. They assert that humans emanate from more primitive forms of life, namely apes. Therefore, they do not have the same sense of respect for the older generation. Young people, therefore, grow up believing that they are more advanced than their forebears. Judaism rejects this reconstruction. Judaism teaches that man was a special creation. The Torah states that the Almighty breathed a special spirit into Adam. Adam did not develop from an ape. If we believe that God created the world, that He created Adam and that He gave us the Torah, we have a totally different appreciation with respect to the development of humanity. We believe that the more distant we are from the momentous events of the creation of the world and the Revelation of God at Mount Sinai, the less spiritually sensitive we become. It is for this reason that our rabbis of the Talmud developed the doctrine of Yeridat Hadorot, which means ‘the decline of the generations.’ This means that our parents are more advanced than we are and that they deserve to be respected by those who are younger than they.
It is interesting to note that the concept of respect and honour of parents is not found in any other code in antiquity. Like many other religious concepts Judaism introduced it to the civilized world.
Many interpretations have been offered for the commandment ‘to love our neighbour like ourselves’. One way of interpreting it is by relating it to its context. The Torah emphasises that we must never hate someone to the extent that we refuse to talk to him and to refuse reconciliation with him. Even if a person has hurt us very much, we should love him enough, as a human being, to give him another chance. Many discords and indeed complete breakdowns in relationships begin with misunderstandings, which can be cleared up. The best example of a kind of misunderstanding comes from the Bible in the story of Joseph. Joseph definitely never intended to hurt his brothers. He was not that sort of person. He shared his criticism of their behaviour with his father because he was a perfectionist. He was young and immature and exceptionally close to his father. His closeness to his father was not due to any failure on his part. Joseph’s brothers did not understand his motives and had no patience for him. They were nasty and eventually hated him to such an extent that they refused even to talk to him about peace. The Torah’s commandment is to love every human being so that we never allow a situation like this to arise. Our rabbis state that we can never really know where a person is coming from and what his motives really are. People often behave towards us in a ways that we do not expect, which is not due to any malice on their part.
The laws of holiness also involve keeping away from any form of magic and witchcraft. These practices were widespread in the ancient world and were closely associated with idolatry. It is for this reason that the Torah called them an abomination and prescribed the death penalty for their violation. There were many forms of witchcraft in the ancient world. In the Sidra Kedoshim the Torah refers to two kinds of witchcraft in particular; these are called Ov and Yidoni. They involved bringing back the spirit of the dead and communicating with it. The prohibition is repeated in the last verse of the Sidra. Indeed, Kedoshim is one of the few Sidrot that ends with a reference to death. Nowadays, we never conclude a passage on a bad note. The fact that the Sidra concludes with this prohibition, demonstrates its gravity. It contradicts the very notion of holiness in Judaism. We can sum up the contents of our Sidra in one sentence. To be holy means to have a perfect relationship with God and with everyone else with whom we come into contact.