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Parasaht Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

April 22, 2010

By Rabbi Michael G. Kohn

One who reads or studies the Torah, and even one who listens carefully to the public Torah reading, is aware that many phrases or clauses appear with regularity. Therefore, it draws one’s attention when a phrase or clause does not read exactly as one had anticipated. The second of our double portion this week, Parashat Kedoshim begins with one such phrase. Thus, while one might be used to hearing (or reading): “vayedabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor dabeir el benei Yisrael . . .” And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites'”, Kedoshim begins: “vayedabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor dabeir el kol adat benei Yisrael . . .” “And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the entire community [or congregation] of Israelites'” What do the added words signify?

Rashi, relying on the Sifra, says that the phrase “teaches that this parashah was said during an assembly [of the entire congregation, i.e. everyone] since most of the essentials of the Torah are dependent on it.” Those essentials are contained in the asseret hadibrot, commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments, which Moses also read to “kol adat benei Yisrael” and which the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 24), suggests are paraphrased in the verses following the opening two verses of this parashah. But elsewhere, the Torah refers to “el kol benei Yisrael“, or even “el kol Yisrael“, such as at Moses’ discourse at the very beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy: “Eila hadevarim asher dibeir Moshe el kol Yisrael . . .” “these are the words Moses spoke to all Israel.” So how can we understand the Torah’s use of the additional word “adat” (rendered above as “community/congregation”)?

In its description of the Israelites’ journey immediately after crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Torah also employs the word “adat“, as it was the entire community, and not just individual Israelites, that having been freed by the hand of God, departed Egypt (Ex. 16 & 17). And in Parashat Shelakh Lekha, the Torah refers to the ten spies who brought back the false report to as “that wicked community” (Num.14). The Talmud uses that same word to determine that the minyan – the minimum size of a prayer community – is ten persons. Rambam and later authorities teach that the prayers of a congregation are always heard, because they are praying as a community, not as individuals.

Thus, the word “adat“, or the phrase “kol adat benei Yisrael“, in the Torah, involves community, or communal, action. And I would suggest that the Torah’s use of the word “adat” means that the mitzvot described in this parashah – just over 8% of the 613 by one count – were applicable to Israel as a community, and not just to each individual Israelite. That is, the community as a body is bound by the concept of holiness, as is each of its individual members. And as a corollary, the mitzvot contained in this parashah must be observed during communal action, as well.

Does not the commandment to pay laborers’ wages promptly not apply to our synagogues and other communal organizations? Are we acting with holiness when the officers and directors of our synagogues or other communal organizations are taken solely (or even predominantly) from the ranks of the wealthy? Are we not placing stumbling blocks before the blind when we permit only those who are members of our synagogue, movement, or organization to avail themselves opportunities for Jewish education? How can a community make religious decisions about prayer and meals that allow for inclusiveness rather than divisiveness?

The Torah enjoins us to “love your fellow as yourself” and to not “hate [our] kinsmen in [our] heart”, yet, there are innumerable examples where communities and Jewish organizations engender ill will from actions such as those mentioned above. For until “kol adat benei Yisrael” acts with holiness, there can be no kedoshim – holy ones/holiness – in our world.


Rabbi Michael G. Kohn was ordained at The Academy for Jewish Religion and is the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, Connecticut.