This week's Torah portion lists 74 laws, including the law of gleaning, which says that fallen crops must be left for widows and orphans, as seen in "Gleaners" by James Tissot.
This week's Torah portion includes the law of gleaning, which says that fallen crops must be left for widows and orphans, as seen in "Gleaners" by James Tissot, ca. 1900.

In the Torah’s ‘Holiness Code,’ justice must be served

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Part of this week’s Torah portion is known widely as the Holiness Code. It is mostly a collection of commandments that describe the way in which our interactions with others should be governed. It opens with the instruction to Moses to “Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I am Holy —  HaShem, your God” (Leviticus 19:2).

We are told directly that we are to emulate God’s holiness and the presumption is that the commandments that follow are the roadmap to get there.

A striking example is verse 15 in chapter 19. “You shall not commit a perversion of justice. You shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great. With righteousness shall you judge your fellow.”

The directive seems to be aimed at members of a judicial system. When acting as a judge, one must be careful to judge the case on its own merits and not be inclined to favor one side over the other.

There are many that feel that real justice accounts for the inequality between the parties and encourages the powerful to be humbled before the powerless.

In the view of the Torah, there are several mitzvot (commandments) that demand that the vulnerable members of our society be cared for under a collective charge. However, when it comes to upholding the legal system, justice must always prevail and the scales cannot be tipped in favor of someone based on their status within society.

In the verse that follows, we are warned not to gossip among our people. That might seem like a logical and rational law if we want to create a society that is free from the toxicity of negative speech.

But the Torah takes it even further. In the very same verse, it states, “you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is being shed — I am HaShem.”

The classic commentators clearly understand this verse to be talking about defending someone’s life if he or she should be in danger. However, the juxtaposition with the previous phrase cannot be ignored. Allowing people to gossip about others is tantamount to character assassination. If one is in a situation to prevent negative speech about another person, then it is imperative to do so.

In society, there is often social pressure that will prevent people from spreading negativity. Unfortunately, social pressure can only be effective if a society identifies the behavior as unacceptable. The Torah does not mince words on this issue. One must work toward creating an environment in which people feel safe from being targeted and ridiculed.

This verse, along with many others, is punctuated at the end with the statement, “I am HaShem.” It should be clear to everyone that each of the commandments comes from HaShem because they are always introduced as such.

Why would God have to declare Himself, and why so often in this parsha in particular?

It seems that the common factor that connects each instance of God’s pronouncement is when one might think that they can get away with a transgression and not be caught. Gossip can be delivered in a whisper. Bearing a grudge (the topic of the next verses) is something that one might feel that they can hide. That is why God makes the announcement that He is God. He is Omniscient and nothing can be hidden from Him.

Not only are the statement commandments, but they carry with them the deterrence when punctuated with a reminder that we are under constant surveillance by God Himself.

Holiness means distinct and separate for a higher purpose. The mores and codes of ethics that enter and exit the stage of world history are dynamic and fleeting.

Remaining distinct implies that we do not rely on external sources for our understanding of what is morally right and wrong. The Torah gives us a system by which we can constantly calibrate our moral compass through timeless instruction of what is good and what is not.

Just as God is singular, we are supposed to be singular when our ethics come into conflict with the world at large.

Fortunately, much of what the Torah introduced into the world has been adopted by other cultures and religions, and we do not often find ourselves in conflict with the modern world because of our unique ideology.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.