I have spent a significant amount of time over the past two decades teaching in various and sundry churches concerning the importance and efficacy of the people of Israel. It has always been my intention to articulate the ongoing relationship between the God of Israel and the People of Israel. Therefore it has been important to me and this message to help my audience to understand that I do not go out among the Jewish people as a representative of the church to “reel” them in, rather I go among my people to bare witness to Yeshua’s always, now and forever presence in the midst of the Jewish people. So in order to gage the understanding of my audience I often will ask, “who thinks that the Jewish people are still God’s people?” More often than not I will get a majority show of hands. Among the more emotive brethren I might even get a chorus of hallelujah’s and maybe even an occasional applause. But then I ask the more difficult question, “Who thinks the Jewish people are holy?” Hands slowly inch up and pull back expressing uncertainty not only of the answer, but even concerning the nature of the question.
The answer of course is (a) Israel has always been and is still holy! In case anyone needs proof I quote the great rabbi from Tarshish,“If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.” (Romans 11:16) This always requires a little explanation. Anyone who has occupied any space on this planet can attest to the relative unholiness of most people. So the idea that any one people group is unconditionally holy across the board seems at the very least counter-intuitive. But the idea that the Jewish people who by in large do not accept the messianic claims of Yeshua, are completely and unequivocally holy is a tough sell in church. What Rav Sha’ul means is that kedushah or holiness, the active state of uniqueness that is imparted by the Holy God through His active word. Israel is holy by virtue of God’s covenant love, through which He separates Israel as special people for His purposes and places His name upon them. So if Israel’s holiness is inherent, what is meant in parasha Kedoshim when Hashem states to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God”? (Vayikra 19:2)
For the answer to this question I will consult one of the great sages of the first half of the 20th century. When I was still in my twenties I started to read some already antiquated self help books by Dale Carnegie. Though the narratives were dated and the aphorisms used passé language, I found the advice to be timeless. I have not forgotten much of the teaching from those books. In How To Win Friends and Influence People Mr. Carnegie advises his readers to “Give every dog a good name.” Of course he is not calling people dogs. What he is saying is that everybody can be given a good reputation to live up to. I started trying it out with my employees and found that this half-century year old instruction had held up to the test of time. It didn’t work out 100% of the time. Often people did not live up to my encouragement and approbation. But I found that more often than not in a world that chides and ridicules, if I gave people a good reputation to live up to and a viable program to work through they could and usually would achieve more than if I ran them with a whip.
So what do old self help book and Israel have in common? It turns out that Dale Carnegie did not develop this strategy. The Carnegie books have held up a century but the Hebrew bible has lasted 35 centuries. Hashem gave Israel as good a name and rep as you can get – His name and His reputation. Hashem took a small rag tag nation of slaves and made the single most enduring civilization in the history of humankind. This is the greatest Pygmalion story ever told. And unlike any other people group, Israel has survived much of its history without possession of its own land and borders. What it has always had was Hashem’s good name and His instruction how to live up to it.
Every collection has a center. As a five-book anthology, “God’s Greatest Hits” so to speak, Torah finds the book of Vayikra at its center, and Kedoshim is the center of Vayikra. So this week’s parasha is the center of the center, the bull’s-eye of God and Israel’s tumultuous love story. But here in the bull’s-eye we find the Holiness Code that embodies the spirit and morality of the Living God, the high-water mark of any and all religious writings of all time. In this core teaching we find a vivid demonstration of the indivisibility of ritual and ethics. The parasha speaks of proper treatment of the laborer, Shabbat observance, honoring parents, avoiding idolatry, the proper mode of sacrifice, leaving food for the poor, and a long list of do’s and don’ts concerning sexual practices and mores. So amidst this somewhat purposeful jumble of ritual and ethical injunctions Torah offers only a single justification:
“You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God.”