Kedoshim: Rise Up

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger


Torah Portion: Kedoshim

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. . . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:32) 

Shalom again, after our Passover break!

This week we read the Torah portion Kedoshim by itself- usually it’s doubled up with its preceding portion, Acharei MotKedoshim has both ethical and ritual laws, including some of the most beautiful principles of Judaism, among which is the verse quoted above, which teaches us to respect, in word and deed, our elders. In our youth oriented media culture, that itself is an important ethical norm, but the ancient rabbis go deeper than manners in understanding this commandment. 

First, we note how the verse above, like many of the verses in this Torah portion, has the phrase “I am the Lord” [ani Adonai] appended to it. There are various interpretations of this phrase, and its variants, attached to different verses, but in this case, at least one ancient source understands this as God saying, as it were : “You shall rise before the aged and show deference do the old, and fear the Holy One, as I, the Holy One, have also done.”

 More explicitly, this midrash* imagines that God is saying: I mention Myself because I was the first to do the mitzvah of rising before an elder. This refers back to Avraham, who was visited by three angels in his tent as he was recovering from his circumcision. 

Now, on the one hand, this is a wildly inventive midrash, if for no other reason than our notion of mitzvah as “commandment” in the sense of having a “commander” is quite altered by imagining that the commander observes the same mitzvot that we do. Leaving those theological issues aside, however, we can still take this image another way: thinking of the Holy One “rising” before Avraham, as it were, also imagines that the most exalted One is also the most humble One. The philosophers posit God as the First Cause, or the Ground of Being, but for the ancient rabbis, God was the One who exemplified the path of humility, care, compassion and fierce commitment to justice. 

To put it another way: in a consumer culture, we value people by what they produce, we notice people by what they consume, and we’re always looking for the next big thing. Torah turns that on its head: we value people because of what they might teach, and revere those who came before. When the rabbis imagine God rising before Avraham, they imagine a world in which we, too, see all people as made in the Divine Image, and must act accordingly. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

*This text is from the Jerusalem Talmud, but I found it in the anthology called Torah Temimah. 
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