From the Courtroom to the Community

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





From the Courtroom to the Community

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 'Speak to the congregation of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy'" (19:1-2).


Our parasha begins enjoining us to be holy.  Whether this is a specific commandment (the Ramban’s opinion, 19:2), or a general statement that describes the effect of mitzva observance (Principle 4 of the Rambam’s introduction to the Sefer haMitzvot), the importance of this phrase cannot be overstated.  The parasha ends with a similarly, "You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine" (20:26), and in the next several weeks, Sefer VaYikra will develop the concept of kedusha (holiness) even further.  Times, places, people – all are required to become sanctified.  Last week, we noted that the structure of Sefer VaYikra follows Hashem’s charged to the Jewish people to become “a nation of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:5).  Chapters 1-17 discussed how the Cohanim performed their duties, becoming “a nation of priests”.  From Chapter 18 until the end of the book, Sefer VaYikra focuses on creating “a holy nation”.


Reflecting the text’s shift in focus are both the mushrooming number of commandments (the beginning of the book until the end of Parashat Metzora had 69, this week’s parasha alone has 51!!), and the increased scope and range of the topics covered.  Our parasha regulates interpersonal relationships, business dealings, agriculture, relationships between an employer and a worker, laws of Shabbat, how to treat sanctified places, etc.  No wonder that the text emphasizes that Moshe had to teach this parasha to the whole “congregation of the Children of Israel”.




Different commentators homiletically interpret the Torah’s rationale for requiring a public assembly for our parasha.  The Ohr haHayyim haKadosh expressed concern that without this public injunction, people might misinterpret the requirement of holiness as being the aspiration of an elite few.  The 19th century Hasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, explains that only by being deeply connected to the Jewish people enables a person to reach the highest levels of holiness. Finally, in his Torat Mahariatz, Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinski argues that the public recital is necessary because holiness obligates a person not only in the privacy of his home, but in the public domain as well. 


The question why this parasha required a public recital first appears in the Midrash:


Rav Chiya stated:  “This portion of the Torah was said at a public assembly because a majority of the essential sections of the Torah are contained within it[1].  Rav Levi stated: “Because the Ten Commandments are included within the portion.”  (VaYikra Rabbah 24:5)  The Midrash identifies where the Ten Commandments appear.




I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. (Shemot 20:2)

For I the LORD your God am holy. (VaYikra 19:2)

You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make unto you a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above (Shemot 20:3)

Turn you not unto the idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods: I am the LORD your God. (VaYikra 19:4)

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain … (Shemot 20:7)

And you shall not swear by My name falsely, so that you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.  (VaYikra 19:12)

Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy (Shemot 20:8)

And you shall keep My Shabbatot, I am the LORD your God. (VaYikra 19:3)

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God gives you (Shemot 20:12)

You shall fear every man his mother, and his father.  (VaYikra 19:3)

You shall not murder.  (Shemot 20:12)

Neither shall you  stand idly by the blood of your neighbour: I am the LORD (VaYikra 19:16)

You shall not commit adultery.  (Shemot 20:12)

And the man that commits adultery with another man's wife, even he that commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (VaYikra 20:10)

You shall not kidnap.  (Shemot 20:12)

You shall not steal. (VaYikra 19:11)

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.  (Shemot 20:12)

You  shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people.(VaYikra 19:16)

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor’s. (Shemot 20:13-14)

Love your neighbor as yourself.  (VaYikra 19:18)[2].


Several interesting themes appear in the Midrash’s comparison between the commandments in our parasha and those from the Ten Commandments.  While some of our parasha’s mitzvot appear very similar to their earlier portrayal, others differ greatly.  Of these, the differences are most noticeable in the realm of Mitzvot Bein Adam leChaveiro (interpersonal commandments, with the prohibition against adultery the exception).  In each case, the original prohibition from the Ten Commandments addresses a case more serious from a legal standpoint than its parallel in Parashat Kedoshim.  Clearly, physically killing another is much more stringent than passively not involving oneself in a dispute.  False testimony in court strikes harder than idle gossip among neighbors.  What lesson can we derive from these differences? 




As mentioned above, the Ramban understands “be holy” as a separate commandment.  Recognizing the Rambam’s objections that the Torah does not list any specific action, the Ramban formulates the commandment to be holy as follows:  Even though the Torah admittedly places many restrictions upon a person, there still remains sufficient room for all types of excesses.  Man still has enough freedom so that he may indulge in enough various physically enjoyable activities that he does not involve himself in spiritual matters.  The Ramban describes this state of being as “a despicable character, with the Torah’s permission”, as long as his indulgences violate no law.  To prevent this, the Torah commands “Be holy” – even when permitted, refrain from self-gratification.


Continuing with the Ramban’s idea, we can understand now both questions that we posed earlier:  why did the Torah require that Moshe recite this section in front of the entire congregation, and how can we explain the discrepancies between the listing of the Ten Commandments in Sefer Shemot with their parallels in our parasha?  What we discover is that among the differences noted above, the role of the courts stands out.  We can bring a person to trial for murder; holding him accountable for passively refusing aid is much more difficult (think of the famous Kitty Genovese case, where a woman was assaulted and murdered near her apartment building while neighbors remained unmoved to her screams, unwilling or unable to even call the police[3]).   The Rambam was able to define the act of coveting legally, but how court a judge hold another person accountable for failing to “love his neighbor as himself”?   Perjury can be prevented and punished; can gossip?  To achieve the goal of being holy, it is not enough, as implied by the Ramban, to rely on legal proscriptions.  The court system can only prevent a breakdown of fundamental mores, but holiness by definition cannot be legislated.  To achieve the Torah’s goal of creating “a holy nation”, more is required.  Enter the community.  Societal pressures and norms can also inspire.  People, bound through a sense of community and joint effort, can achieve far more than lonely individuals can.  For this reason, our parasha reflects the original Giving of the Torah – not just in content, but also in delivery.  Only through the combined efforts of the entire Jewish community will we accomplish that ambitious objective – to become a holy people that are a light to the nations. 


[1] Rashi brings R. Chiya’s opinion in his commentary ad loc.


[2] In an attempt to explain the parallel, the commentator on the Midrash Rabbah the Eitz Yosef explains that someone who loves his neighbor as himself will not covet what belongs to him.


[3] Generally used by Social Psychology textbooks as the prime example of man’s ability to ignore suffering; see however Darley and Latanי, "Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1968, who discovered that "the number of bystanders that the subject perceived to be present had a major effect on the likelihood with which [he] would report the emergency."