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Parashat Kedoshim

May 13, 2016

by Hazzan Marcia Lane

[We would like to bring to people’s attention the difference between the traditional Diaspora and Israeli Torah reading cycles for the next few months. Since this year the eighth day of Passover, which was observed by many in the Diaspora, fell on Shabbat and had a special Torah reading, the Israeli Torah reading cycle moved one parashah ahead of the traditional Diaspora cycle. The AJR divrei Torah will follow the traditional Diaspora cycle and will catch up to the Israeli cycle at the beginning of August.]

Parashat Kedoshim — The Little Things

Remember the first time your child learned the power of “no”? Oddly, that one word sometimes carries more weight than the equally small, one-syllable “yes.” Sometimes the smallest words are the most powerful. All the most important questions in life can be answered in one syllable.

In this week’s parashah there is a tiny, one-syllable Hebrew word whose translation changes everything. The word is “kee.” The comprehensive Alcalay Hebrew-English Dictionary translates the word: for, because, that, but, as, if, in case, while, when, even though, although, since, only, lest.

Imagine the possibilities! The Torah portion begins and ends with two statements that address the issue of holiness, and both contain the word “kee.”

Daber el kol adat b’nei Yisrael v’amarta aleihem kedoshim ti’hyu kee kadosh

Ani Adonai Eloheikhem. Speak to the entire congregation of the people Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy kee I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)

Vi-h’yitem lee kedoshim kee kadosh Ani Adonai, va-avdil etkhem min ha-amim lih’yot lee. “And you shall be holy to Me kee I am the Lord, and I shall separate you from the nations to be Mine.” (Lev. 20:26)

In most translations of these two verses our little word is translated as “because.” You shall be holy because I am holy. You shall be holy (set apart, sacred) to Me because I am the Lord. But if we even substitute one of those other, equally acceptable words, the sentences become different, conditional statements. You shall be holy while I am holy. You shall be holy if I am holy. We make different theological statements depending on that tiny one-syllable word, and smack in the middle of the parashah there is another instance of the word:

V’hitkadishtem vi-h’yitem kedoshim, kee Ani Adonai Eloheikhem.

You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, kee I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 20:7)

The statement that is made through the usual translations is fairly straight-forward. You shall be holy in imitation of Me, because I am holy. But what happens to our assumptions if we say, “You shall be holy so that I can be holy.” Then we flip the equation. God can only be a worthy, sacred God if we are holy. We, through our actions, our sense of moral behavior and our compassion, we give rise to a holy God. Or how about this: You shall be holy while I am holy. We are in a reciprocal arrangement with God, and we are held to certain sacred standards only insofar as we can see those standards exemplified in God. It reminds one of the Talmudic conversation about God’s tefillin.

R. Nahman b. Isaac said to R. Hiyya b. Abin: What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe? He replied to him: “And who is like your people Israel, a nation unique in the earth.”

Does, then, the Holy One, blessed be He, sing the praises of Israel? Yes, for it is written: You have affirmed the Lord this day. . .and the Lord has affirmed you this day. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: You have made me a unique entity in the world, and I shall make you a unique entity in the world. You have made me a unique entity in the world,’ as it is said: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. ‘And I shall make you a unique entity in the world,’ as it is said: And who is like Your people Israel, a nation one in the earth. (Berachot 6a)

So in this scenario God responds to the praises — and presumably the actions — of God’s people by elevating them to unique (holy, set-apart) status among the nations, just as Israel, through praise and action, has elevated God. The repeated word in our liturgy is “romemu” — lift up! Elevate the Lord our God. How do we elevate a deity? By our holy words and deeds.

The notion that we affect the universe permeates our prayers. The notion that we might actually affect God — and not only God’s actions but God’s sacred status — is audacious to say the least. On the other hand, theology hangs by a very slim thread. Why? Kee. Because. Since. While. Although.


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.