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Vayikra/Leviticus 20:7 You shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am the L-rd your G-d.
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The traditional Jewish decision to split the obvious couplet of this verse and the next into different aliyah portions on both regular and leap years cannot be accidental. The Sages of the Talmud record that some rules for segmenting the weekly parasha into sequential readings existed as early as, perhaps, the 3rd-4th century CE (b. Meggilah 22a), but the earliest formal publication of particular divisions dates from the 16th century in a work by Rabbi Yissachar ben Mordechai ibn Susan, showing versions claiming to date from the Gaonic period (5th-10th century) or from Ezra the Scribe. Nevertheless, the two verses do seem to belong together - and are shown that way in the majority of English translations - so our study will proceed on that basis. Here is the complete text:
You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I the L-RD am your G-d. You shall faithfully observe My laws: I the L-RD make you holy. (Vayikra 20:7-8, NJPS)
The three underlined sets of English words translate three Hebrew words from the same root - - to be holy, separate or set apart. In the Pi'el family of stems, Pi'el itself suggests keeping holy or consecrating a person or object, while Hitpa'el - the 'reflexive' or 'iterative' voice - addresses dedicating or consecrating oneself (see Clines1). Nouns - such as 'holiness' or 'holy person' - and adjectives, 'sacred' or 'holy', also come from the same root. Significantly, the couplet is both started and ended in the Hebrew text by this verb. It opens with , the Hitpa'el 2mp affix form with a vav-reversive to give a future tense: this is the command "you shall sanctify yourselves". It ends with , the ms Pi'el particle, the one "making you holy" or "sanctifying you", immediately preceded by the tetragrammaton,HaShem: it is HaShem who is (ongoing) sanctifying you. The middle word is , an mp adjective used to qualify the word before it - , the Qal 2ms affix form of the root , to be - giving the second command: "and you shall be holy".
Combined with the third instruction, to "faithfully observe" HaShem's statutes, we can see an immediate tension between 'being' holy and 'doing' holy. Do the people make themselves holy or does HaShem make them holy? And what makes someone holy? Is it a declaration of state or commitment, "I am [now] holy" or is it the result of observing the Torah? Is it something that is earned, or something that is given?Ibn Ezra attempts to bridge the gap by explaining (in HaShem's voice), "I have given you these laws to keep in order to sanctify you." By this, the initiative rests with HaShem who has given the people His commandments so that they can sanctify themselves by keeping them. He, then, is the ultimate source of holiness. John Hartley suggests that "they sanctify themselves each time they obey the laws given by G-d. Sanctification involves affirmative action; it is exercising one's will to do G-d's will. Sanctification is also pursued by consciously avoiding any activity that defiles. Every time the people obey G-d's word, they activate the sanctifying presence of G-d in their midst. Yahweh does the sanctifying; He is present among His people as the Holy G-d."2
Some of the commentators notice that this couplet appears in between a section prohibiting the worship of Moloch by child sacrifice and a second set of prohibited relationships or sexual activity. They are also aware that the injunction to be holy is given on multiple occasions. They deduce from this that context is significant in deciding exactly to what the action of sanctification refers. FollowingTorat Kohanim 10:2, Rashi says that the command here is "separation from idolatry", while the Sforno says it is "separation from sexual immorality". Others suggest, by way of comparison, that Vayikra 19:2 is speaking of honouring parents, while 11:44 talks about refraining from eating creeping things. Rabbi Hirsch also sees particularity: "It is not speaking here of the general holiness to be striven for in connection with the dictates of the Torah in general, but of the special holiness which is to be sought and kept by keeping away from all forms of idolatrous practices. The concept of holiness in its highest degree, and so used as an attribute of G-d, comprises not only absolute freedom of will, but also absolute freedom of existence, and hence eternity."
We can see that the Torah itself does seem to condition being holy as a consequence of obedience to HaShem's instructions. HaShem has Moshe tell the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, "If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples ... and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:5-6, NJPS). The people respond with a promise of obedience: "All that the L-RD has spoken we will do!" (v. 8). That is clearly how they heard and understood the words. When Moshe came down from the mountain, he "warned the people to stay holy, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, 'Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman'" (vv, 14-15, NJPS). Again, a clear link between obedience and being or staying holy. A person who takes the nazirite vow is to abstain from any grape product, from cutting his hair and from being in contact with anyone who is dead. If he does this then, "throughout his term as nazirite he is consecrated to the L-RD" (B'Midbar 6:8, NJPS). Indeed, the restrictions on not even attending the death or funeral of the closest family - "father or mother, or his brother or sister" (v. 7, NJPS) - parallel that of the High Priest, suggesting a similar degree of holiness. The Sages said, "Sanctify yourself in that which you are [normally] permitted" (b. Yevamot 20a).
Yeshua uses the verb 'sanctify/consecrate' three times together during His priestly prayer: "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate Myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth" (John 17:17-19, ESV). First, Yeshua asks the Father to sanctify His disciples - to make them holy and set apart for Him by means of the truth. Next, He reminds the Father that He (Yeshua) is sanctifying Himself for their sake and ends by conditioning their sanctification on His obedience in consecrating Himself for them. Rav Sha'ul applies this to all the followers of Yeshua: "Messiah loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25-27, ESV). That is how we become holy: by allowing Him to wash us and avoiding things that cause blemish.
Moshe has to 'do' things to consecrate the altar in the Tabernacle - "You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, so that the altar may become most holy" (Shemot 40:10, NJPS). In the same way, Rav Sha'ul explains that "if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work" (2 Timothy 2:21, ESV), elaborating for leaders that "an overseer, as G-d's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined" (Titus 1:7-8, ESV). He even connects with out text by using the example of sexual immorality: "for this is the will of G-d, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor" (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4, ESV). Sanctification seems to be contingent on what we do and the way we behave. Peter pushes the point home: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:14-16, ESV).
On the other hand, we must maintain the tension. It isn't all about us; it is all about Him. G-d told the prophet, "Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5, NJPS). Jeremiah was sanctified and set apart for G-d before he was even born! Likewise, Rav Sha'ul tells the Ephesians, "[G-d] chose us in [Yeshua] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him" (Ephesians 1:4, ESV). This is G-d at work, in His sovereign grace, reaching out to us. He "saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of His own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Messiah Yeshua before the ages began" (2 Timothy 1:9, ESV). We work with Him, humbling ourselves under His hand, with our eyes firmly fixed on Yeshua, "laying aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us to run the race that is set before us" (Hebrew 12:1, ESV).
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 388-389.
2. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 338.
Further Study: 2 Corinthians 7:1; Colossians 3:12-17; 1 Thessalonians 5:23
Application: Are you committed to walking a path of sanctification, putting everything else aside in order to be holy because you follow Yeshua? The Master is calling for disciples in these days who will reveal His holiness like a blazing torch. Has He called you and have you given Him the answer He seeks?
Comment - 08:17 1May22 Tim: That is totally brilliant and most welcome. Especially it saves us from the evangelical heresy that "Jesus does it all and all you have to do is say you believe". Holding two things in tension is a wonderfully Jewish gift to us all.
Comment - 08:23 1May22' Joshua VanTine: Thank you for the drash with a dash of Heaven's call. The Bat Kol rings out once again from the pages of Torah. Our Rabbi, Yeshua of Nazareth, calls to us. May we answer by choosing life, obedience flowing from a heart of love that knows the love and goodness of our Heavenly Father in Moshiach Yeshua. May we live and learn to answer our Rabbi's call in a manner pleasing to Him.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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