Intentions Matter

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Davar Kedoshim 5782 / Leviticus 19: 1-20:27

This parsha makes a very powerful foundational statement about Judaism right from the start. And it also makes a statement about Judaism at the end … but we’ll get to that later.

We begin with the famous, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord, am holy.”  The “you” here is plural, kedoshim are the holy ones, and you shall strive to be be one of them, because you were created in G-D’s image, b’tzelem elohim. With this commandment, Leviticus transitions from referring to the exclusivity of Judaism, the sanctuary, the holy offerings, the priests, and other elites, to the emphasis on inclusivity – – we can and we must all strive to be holy. In addition, kedoshim, being a holy people, is heavily embedded in how we relate to other people:  you shall reserve the corners of your fields for the hungry, you shall not deal deceitfully, coerce or rob your neighbor, and other specific actions.

Intentions matter here as much as actions. Consideration, dignity, and respect matter also. “You shall not insult the deaf, and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”  To interpret this literally would restrict it to only those challenges. One of my great rabbinic teachers would interpret it as  we should not make life more difficult for others. Respond to opportunities with that mantra in mind.

The importance of intentions, what is in your heart, from this parsha, is eloquently explained by Chabad. It references the teaching from this parsha, “Do not falsify measurements, whether in length weight or volume. You must have an honest balance, an honest dry measure, and an honest liquid measure.”  Notice this is what you must have, whether you use it or not. The Rambam taught, “Whoever retains in his house  … a false measure … transgresses a prohibitory command.”  The act of making and/or storing that which can be used to be deceitful or immoral is immoral in itself. This interpretation enables this aspect of morality to be just as relevant today.

Another principle from this parsha has lasting moral importance. This is where we read, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Vayikra 19:18)  As Rabbi Marc Angel comments this week, “is it really possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? …. We came across people who are malicious, cruel, dishonest, and even worse.”  Rabbi Hillel tackled this by having us look in our own mirrors and reflect that, “What is offensive to you do not do to someone else. That is the whole Torah.”  Rabbi Marc Angel extended that this week in his commentary by noting, “The commandment to love others as ourselves implies that we need to love ourselves!  (look at the obvious first)  This means we need to live upright and  honorable lives; when we look in the mirror, we should see someone whom we respect. That is an essential ingredient in the ‘golden rule.’”  In this way, it is about your own inner intentions, how you act towards yourself, that facilitates how you will act towards others.

Ultimately, how you act towards others who cannot react to you can also define your morality. This parsha is the tail end of parshiyot Acharei, Mot, Kedoshim thiyu. When you string together only the titles of these consecutive parshiyot, you gain the insight of “After Death, Holiness,” or “After Death, you shall be holy.”  The mentor who taught me the most about officiating at funerals taught that this acronymic interpretation of the titles of the parshiyot in a row, should guide the development of the hesped, or eulogy, to only speak of the praiseworthy qualities of the deceased. This is chesed shel emet, ultimate kindness to the deceased. Your intentions in talking about the deceased at the funeral, and your intentions in reflecting on the deceased at a funeral, truly matter.

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