Drash on Parsha Kedoshim


By Avi Soifer

Rocks and Roles [and Rules] for the Chosen People

As usual, I have three main themes: 1. A Hard Place;  2. Amos;  3. Kedoshim

They suggest concentric circles in both our empathy and in our law.

But I begin with a lingering question. Why in the world is it Jewish custom to start kids with Leviticus as they begin to study Torah?

Even if the kids get some honey for their troubles, it makes no sense to plunge them into excruciating details about sacrifices, mandatory gymnastics for the high priest and his family, and a whole lot of things that are forbidden that children don’t begin even to understand.

Today we have combined parshot: 

Achrei Mot:  After the deaths of Aaron’s sons—lots of duties, lots of bathing and wearing linen—said by some rabbis to be a tribute to women, but who is washing all that? 

[I think it is time for a reprise of Kay’s legendary drash in which she demonstrated the high fashion of the high priest’s outfit]

Many sacrifices are described in detail; goats are divided and one is sent to Azazel and Yom Kippur rites and responsibilities are specified, as are the duties of those wishing to make sacrifices. We also learn of many folks whose nakedness should not be seen by other folks, and even who should not sleep with who [or whom?]

It’s all still a little cloudy, yet preserved for eternity—or at least a long time—in the Cloud. Nonetheless, this parsha certainly does not rock out and you can’t really dance to it.

But there are rocks to discuss. Moshe and rocks, for example: if only Moshe had learned to use only words at his Pre-K (pre-Kedoshim] class in Pharaoh’s Court.

And remarkably we learned earlier this month of a leading current theory that some very large sauropod dinosaurs unknowingly transported rocks in their bellies from Wisconsin to Wyoming: over 1000 miles. (NY Times, 4.9.21)  

Another example in nature, perhaps. of Rabbi Heschel’s “Radical Amazement?”

  • The Jews as the Chosen People


“How Odd/ Of God/ To Choose The Jews”(Ogden Nash)

One legend has it that Jews accepted the chosen people assignment only when God held a huge rock [actually more a mountain] over the heads of the Israelites to “convince” them/us to agree to take on the Torah.

This echoes, in a somewhat round-about way, the opening lines of the portion of Amos, the Haftarah that generally accompanies Kedoshim. 

Amos more than once is keen to remind the children of Israel that they are not so special after all.

Or, as my late lefty great aunt Rasel liked to say: “Not so hotsie totsie”

Amos: described himself as simply “a cattle herder and a keeper of sycamores” and resisted the assignment to be a prophet pretty vigorosly—The Book of Amos emphasizes the gap between rich and poor, and condemns devotion to luxuries and mere forms of devotion; in fact, his prophesy rivals the curses in Moses’s final message near the end of Deuteronomy. 

Because Amos lived around 750 B.C.E., he might even be considered prophetic because exile followed nearly 200 years later.

 Thus, says Amos:Only you did I love above all the families of the earth; therefore, I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” (3.2)

But also, as Gayle read in today’s Haftarah:

“Are you not like the children of the Cushites to Me, O children of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and Aram from Kir?” (9.7)

So how to remain or become God’s chosen people? An easy answer might be to follow the law.

But what law? After all, we are encircled by law. 

We have, for example, the written Torah and also the oral Torah, and we also have minhag –custom—which intrigued Rabbi Goldfarb and which, remarkably, can at times take precedence over even what the Torah explicitly says.

  • Kedoshim

I signed up for this particular drash because it was Amira’s Bat Mitzvah drash: Memorably, in not an entirely neutral voice, she proclaimed: “Dad: Where are my last pages?”  In fact, though I was innocent, Amira ad-libbed beautifully.

Her parsha was also my father’s and, one may hope, possibly that of Samuel Benjamin, who became one year old last week and thus was born in the right time frame.

Being the “Chosen People” obviously has had its numerous trade-offs over the millennia: In a way, it is like being assigned or chosen to be a juror or a judge in a very important case. 

What should these roles entail?

  1. That core question—judge within the law or judge within righteousness?–It remains an important theme, even today. I have talked before about Bob Cover’s great work on antislavery American judges who nonetheless returned Blacks to slavery, all the while protesting that they had no other choice. Cover suggested that this may have been cognitive dissonance, but they did the deed in the name of the law.

There is a description of God as a judge in the Torah—basically echoes Kedoshim, but we are assured in addition that God does not take bribes—so would/could bribe God? And our prayers, for instance on Yom Kippur “to avert the severe decree” are…?

What does Kedoshim suggest? 

That we are to follow the law and/or to do justice?  

Perhaps to be neutral, to be impartial?:

But how impartial do we want or can we expect a legal decision-maker to be?

[Hawaiʻi and mixed jury in 19th century: half Chinese, half white, etc.]

“They say in Harlan County/ There are no neutrals there.” Labor wars of the 1920s and 1930’s

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

[He added: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”]

For all my skepticism about young children studying Leviticus, Kedoshim in Chapter 19 offers a remarkably interesting and rich array of themes :

Leave the edges of the field for the poor; harvest and use the fruit of a young tree only in the tree’s fifth year; don’t eat blood (or leftovers after the third day), etc.


13 Thou shalt not oppress thy neighbour, nor rob him; the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.
14 Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but thou shalt fear thy God: I am the Lord
15 “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” 


[ You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:15-16)]

And the verse said to be the core of the entire Torah:

19.18 Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

And who is that neighbor?

19:34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.


EMPATHY/PROTECTION as central theme– Martha Minow: Making All The Difference: It is a matter of perspective, and we are the makers as well as the  perceivers of difference

And a recent New Yorker cartoon:

Jubilant children of Israel crossing the dry land where the Red Sea parted. And one fish to another inside a huge wave on one side of the dry land, while the rest of their school of fish is swimming on the other side: “Now, I’m going to be late to work.”


Hierarchy and binaries would probably make life easier, but—blessedly—we live within concentric circles


Faulkner: “Whoever wins, it won’t be for good and it won’t be for long.”


W.C. Fields, upon being seen reading a bible: “Looking for loopholes”


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