Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Kedoshim 5763/ May 3, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Kedoshim 5763/ May 3, 2003

Morals and Mitzvot: For the Sake of Heaven

Rabbi Dr. Jacob Harlap
Department of Talmud

Many commandments in Parashat Kedoshim conclude with the phrase, "I the Lord am your G-d" (e.g. Lev. 19:2-4; 9-10; 25), or with the words, "I am the Lord" (e.g. Lev. 19:12; 14; 16; 18). various explanations can be found in the Midrash and in medieval biblical commentary; these are usually ad hoc comments. We might attempt a more general explanation by noting that some of these commandments can be characterized as expressing moral ideas of universal value. These have been termed by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon mitzvot sikhliot, "commandments of the intellect." For example, "You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths; I the Lord am your G-d" (Lev. 19:3), likewise, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18).

Let us begin with the theme of revering parents. When the Sages sought to teach us how to fulfill this precept, they took the behavior of an idolater (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a) as a prime example:

The following question was asked of R. Ulla, how far should revering one's parents go? He said, "Behold what a certain idolater from Ashkelon--Dama ben Netinah- did. Once the Sages were offering a reward of six hundred thousand for certain merchandise, and the key to the goods lay beneath his father's head, yet he did not disturb him.

This goes to show the universal morality in this commandment, which therefore can be learned from a gentile. However, just because a universal morality can be found in them, Rabbi Joseph Bekhor-Shor's (12th century, French city of Orleans) interpretation for the addition of the words "I the Lord am your G-d" or "I am the Lord" is unexpected:

He begins with reverence for parents which is juxtaposed in the same verse with the Sabbath and concludes "I am the Lord your G-d". This phrase teaches that although the particular commandment to honor parents expresses a universal human value, it is on a par with the commandment of the Sabbath: just as the latter is to be kept 'for the sake of the Lord', so the commandment to revere one's parents is to be observed for the sake of the Lord; the conclusion, "I the Lord am your G-d," indicates that all is for the sake of Heaven.

"You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths" - i.e., even though I told you this in the Ten Commandments, for there I said, "Honor your father and mother" (Ex. 20:12) - and in the peshat interpretation honoring and revering are the same - now I say, "I the Lord am your G-d," i.e., what you do, you should do for the sake of Heaven; for the sake of Heaven you should revere your parents, and for the sake of Heaven you should keep the Sabbath, and for the sake of Heaven you shall profane them [the Sabbath, in the case of risk to life], as our Rabbis said, "May all that you do be for the sake of Heaven" (Avot 2.12).

Bekhor Shor continued this approach in the verse, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18). Even the Sages asked how a person could be commanded to "love your fellow as yourself." Indeed, Hillel the Elder's concise interpretation, "'What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow,' - this summarizes the entire Torah" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) is well-known. Bekhor Shor did not recommend internalizing the ethical importance of this commandment, rather he seems to have recognized the fact that the moral benefit inherent in this commandment does not provide sufficiently solid motivation; in his opinion, this commandment and others like it can be fulfilled only by internalizing the energies of loving G-d and doing His will, rather than loving evil, and therefore we have the concluding words, "I am the Lord":

The Holy One, blessed be He, is saying to you: may the love that you have for Me overcome the hate that you have for him; so that you lend to him for the sakeof loving Me; and that you not be vengeful, and thereby bring peace among you. Likewise you will find that with respect to the text, "when you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden..." (Ex. 23:5), the Holy One, blessed be He, said: may the love that you have for Me overcome the hate that you have for him; so that you help him for the sake of loving Me. This is what is meant by, "Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful" (Prov. 3:17)... I am the Lord - and it is fitting that love for Me allay hate (Lev., loc. sit.)

The message that comes out of his commentary is, as we said above, that the Torah does not present a universal moral imperative for keeping these commandments, rather it gives the reason, "I am the Lord," indicating that the way to fulfillment of the commandment involves recognition of a Divine imperative.

Similar ideas were raised by the Sages and by medievals prior to the time of Rabbi Bekhor Shor. Rashi (1040-1105) explained Rav's position in the Talmud which prohibits returning a lost object to a non-Jew (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 76b) as follows: "This is because he compares and equates a Kuti (Samaritan) with an Israelite, and himself shows that in returning a lost object it is not the command of His creator that is important to him, for he does so even for a Kuti, although he was not commanded regarding them." In other words, doing so emphasizes that the mitzvah is not a Torah commandment but rather a general moral rule to return a lost object.

Maimonides' position is somewhat different. He raises the following question in his preface to Tractate Avot [Shmonah Peraqim, ch. 6]: which person is to be considered finer and which character more preferable? One who by nature tends to do what is good and moral - "an excellent person," or a person who tends to evil, but overcomes his inclination and does good - "a person who rules over his soul"? According to the philosophers, Maimonides said, the "excellent person" is preferable to the one who "rules over his soul." But viewed from a different perspective the person who "rules over his soul" can be seen as finer than the "excellent person," since one must esteem him for overcoming his evil inclination and attaining virtue. Maimonides cites Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, who said: "A person should not say, 'I do not wish to eat meat and milk, or I do not wish to wear shaatnez, or I do not wish to have illicit sexual relations; rather, I wish to; but what am I to do, for My Father in Heaven decreed that I should not?" (Sifra, Kedoshim 10.11).

This sounds similar to the view of Bekhor Shor. However, Maimonides distinguished between commandments that are evident to the intellect, like the prohibition against murder or the prohibition against theft, concerning which he held that even the Sages agreed the "excellent person" is preferable to the one who "rules over his soul," and commandments that, had we not been commanded them, there would be no reason for performing them, and therefore, regarding these commandments, the person who "rules over his soul" is considered preferable to the "excellent" person. It follows from Maimonides that commandments which reflect moral humanist values should be observed for their own intrinsic sake, for thus one becomes an "excellent" person. One who observes them only because G-d commanded, but has to struggle with his natural desires not to kill or steal, is considered an inferior character.

Thus we see a difference between the first approach (Rashi's view and the position implied by Rabbi Bekhor Shor's commentary), that in every instance, even when dealing with commandments of moral humanist value, one is to prefer the person who "rules over his soul," and the approach espoused by Maimonides, that regarding moral commandments the "person of moral excellence" is to be preferred.

Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Abahu took opposing stands on this question (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 34b):

Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said, "Rabbi Johanan said: The prophets all made their prophecies (Rashi: of good and of consolation) only to those who were repentant; but as for the totally righteous person - 'No eye has seen [them], O G-d, but You (Isaiah 64:3)' [presumably, he interpreted the verse to mean, they see G-d directly, "You" referring to the righteous, and have no need for prophecy, being on a much higher religious level than the repentant]. Rabbi Abahu disagreed, for he said, "Where those who have repented stand, the completely righteous do not stand; for it is said: 'It shall be well, well with the far and the near' (Isaiah 57:19) - the far comes first and foremost, before the near." (Cf. parallel texts in Sanhedrin 99a).

Two different approaches lie at the root of the matter: the approach of Rabbi Johanan, which sides with those who prefer the "excellent" person, as opposed to the approach of Rabbi Abahu, which sides with the person who does teshuvah and henceforth "rules over his soul."

Maimonides' view, as presented above, is not his last word on the issue: another approach emerges from Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim. There he wrote that the righteous gentiles have a share in the World to Come as long as they observe the seven precepts commanded of the descendants of Noah as commandments; but observing these rules as the dictates of natural law or morality has no religious value.

All those who accept the seven commandments and take care to observe them are to be considered righteous gentiles, and they have a part in the world to come; that means accepting them and doing them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and made it known to us via Moses that the descendants of Noah had been commanded them; but if they observe them because of the dictates of the intellect, they are neither ger toshav (resident non-Jews), nor righteous gentiles, nor sages. (Loc. sit., 8.11).

In continuation of the line with which we began, we conclude with a commentary by the Netziv on the last few verses of the portion of the week: "You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine" (Lev. 20:26). In his opinion, there is a difference between the separation of kedusha and the separation implied by the verb havdala. The command, "You shall be holy," indicates distancing oneself and setting oneself apart from things, not because the human intellect dictates but because G-d has thus commanded. In contrast, the concluding words "and I have set you apart" are not a duplication of the request to be holy but rather the reward: the Israelites will also refrain from those things which general human comprehension leads people to avoid. What sort of reward is that?

According to his interpretation, Israel makes itself holy by distancing itself from those things that ordinary human comprehension does not call for avoiding, such as certain foods or particular sexual relations; they will be rewarded in that even those things that all persons draw away from because of natural morality, they will refrain from doing because the Lord so commanded. This is the way of the pious (Ha'amek Davar, Lev. 20:26):

"You shall be holy to Me, for ... I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine" - being holy means being set apart, separated from other peoples, except that there is an additional message: holiness means separating in a matter that the human intellect does not necessarily dictate, rather the Holy One, blessed be He, so commands. This is not the case with setting apart (havdala) which pertains to a natural difference between good taste and vulgarity. . . .
This holiness will then lead to a more elevated level of G-d setting us apart from other people to be His, so that even what nature is inclined to set apart will also be for Him, lihiyot li-- that is, for the sake of G-d and not because of nature. To be pious is for all one's deeds to be done for the sake of Heaven.

In conclusion, piety calls for performing commandments that have moral grounds with the same motivation we perform the hukkim--for the sake of Heaven.