Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: The Personal God of Israel

A good teacher knows that it is vital to learn names. A new year or new set of classes might easily mean 30, 60, or 100 new students, and each of them is a new face and a new name to try to remember. But it is very important to make the effort, because when you as a teacher look at a student directly and call him or her by name, it makes a real difference. It is a different experience than saying “you” or speaking indirectly about “him” or “her”. Looking a person in the eye and calling that person by name can be the beginning of a meaningful personal connection.

Hello My Name Is TagsThis truth isn’t just for teachers who meet new students for the first time. It is also true of any personal connection with friends, colleagues, and community members. And it is not just important as a way to set the personal tone for a new connection, but also as the basic way to focus on people in ongoing, long term relationships. You express your connection by focusing directly on someone and calling that person by name.

Rashi makes this point in his initial comments to the book of Leviticus, and he makes it in a way that is important throughout most of the Torah. Rashi is, of course, mostly a very “local” commentator. Read a verse, and Rashi’s commentary will react to that verse. Read the next verse, and Rashi explains it too. Only rarely does Rashi focus on broader issues in the text that encompass whole units or demand major comparisons between separate sections. The same is true of his Talmud commentary: Unlike the later tosafists who rigorously compared themes that occur in different parts of the Talmud, Rashi’s Talmud commentary usually focuses only on the passage at hand.

When Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, does deal with wider issues, he often does so at the beginning of a book or at the beginning of a parashah. This is true of his comments at the beginning of Leviticus, where he deals at relative length with God’s “call” to Moses. There Rashi writes that not just in Leviticus 1:1 (“He called to Moses”), but rather every time the Torah tells us that “God spoke to Moses, saying…” there was always a personal call before the speech. When God called “Moses, Moses!”, says Rashi, it was a personal expression of His deep affection for His servant.

The call to Moses was also direct. A person can look someone in the eye and speak directly, but the speech cannot be limited to one person: If others are in close enough, then they can hear it too. But when God called out to Moses, says Rashi, the powerful sound nevertheless ceased entirely at the boundaries of the Tabernacle. Furthermore, when the same verse says “He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him” – it means to Moses alone, personally, but not to Aaron, both here and throughout the Torah. Now in the Torah there are actually eleven place where it says that God spoke “to Moses and Aaron” but there are also eleven places where the language of the verses, according to the midrash, limits God’s speech to Moses alone. This teaches, says Rashi, that speech to “Moses and Aaron” actually means that God called Moses personally, spoke to him exclusively, and then bade him to convey what he was told to Aaron.

Finally, the first verse of Leviticus ends with the word lemor (literally “to say”). According to Rashi, this teaches that in conveying the divine message to Israel, Moses was also supposed to convey God’s affection for them: “Go and tell them words of love: It is for you that He speaks with me.”

Making it Personal

How does all of this play out in our double portion of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim? At the very beginning of Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1) it says: “And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they approached the Lord and died. And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to Aaron your brother…”. It is unusual that we are told when God spoke to Moses, and here it indicates that Moses is to deliver a particularly stern warning to Aaron his brother about service in the Holy of Holies (which introduces the whole section about the High Priest’s duties on the Day of Atonement).

In the next chapter (17), Moses is understandably told to “speak to Aaron and to his sons and to all the children of Israel…” about the rules for slaughtering animals and consuming flesh. The final chapter of Aharei Mot (18) proscribes the deeds of Egypt and of Canaan, especially in terms of forbidden sexual relations, and it is sensibly addressed to “the children of Israel.”

We also find a unique formula at the beginning of Kedoshim (19:2): “Speak to all the community of the children of Israel” which teaches, according to Rashi, that “this section was proclaimed in full assembly, because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah depend upon it.” The highly concentrated list of commandments following this formula contains vivid parallels to the Ten Commandments, as well as the mitzvah to “love your neighbor as yourself, which Rabbi Akiva famously called “a great principle of the Torah.” The idea that this critical section was proclaimed by Moses to Israel “in full assembly” goes right back to the idea that speaking directly to people strengthens what you say. It also goes back to the earlier idea that God’s affection for Moses, His chosen messenger to Israel, relates to His love for Israel: “It is for you that He speaks with me.” This crucial expression of the covenant had to be proclaimed directly because it is an expression of the unique relationship between God and Israel: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Rashi’s understanding of the formulas of speech by God in the Torah is not just technical. Rather, it is an expression of how he thinks about the God of Israel. Rashi’s God is one who loves His servant Moses and His people Israel, and expresses that love through affectionate speech. The God of Israel isn’t a just concept or an idea according to Rashi, but rather a personality that pursues an ongoing relationship. God both speaks and listens, and He cares.

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) KadishRav Seth Kadish, a member of Beit Hillel, has taught Jewish studies in American Jewish day schools, in the Israeli public school system, and in the education corps of the IDF. He currently teaches medieval Jewish history and philosophy at Oranim Teacher’s College in Kiryat Tivon, and adult Israeli Jewish education through the Hebrew University’s Melton School (Gandel program). He is one of the founders of the Nitzotz-Machanaim community in Karmiel, Israel.
 

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