“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: ‘You shall be holy ones, for I, the LORD your God, am holy’” Leviticus 19:2


This line, whose primary word, “holy ones”, gives its name to our parashah, is especially layered with meanings, and, as usual, that’s because of the grammar of Hebrew itself. 

The almost ubiquitous root of kuf-dalet-shin is so familiar to us — Kaddish, Kedushah, Kiddush, Kodesh, Hakedoshim —  that we often fail to grasp its depth. Translated as “to sanctify, to make holy, to hallow”,  we usually result to obscure English words to assist us. 

In some places it seems to specify things “set apart” (the equivalent of the Arabic haram) but then in other contexts it references things quite mundane, and often not so holy, such as the k’deshah, temple prostitute. 

And yet, on top of all that, one of the biggest meanings of this elusive word is to die al kiddush Hashem (upon the sanctity of the Name). This is the oldest and most prevalent Jewish way to refer to martyrdom, going back to the Second Temple period, and clearly had an influence on Christianity as well (whose Lord’s Prayer resembles the Kaddish so closely with it’s opening line: “Hallowed be Thy Name”). As a result of this, those who have died for their Jewish faith are known in Hebrew as kedoshim, holy ones. 

Therefore, one could read our verse as “You shall be martyrs, for I, the Lord your God, am holy”. In some ways, it seems that such a causal statement is true. It is because God is holy, separate, sanctified, and hallowed that we have often died for the sake of our faith. 

If God weren’t so separate, so liminal, then the act of becoming the holy ones of martyrdom would never be needed. We never hope for it, we never ask for it, and we are instructed to do everything we can to avoid such a fate — but in the few cases where it is required that we die rather than violate the sanctity of that faith, we have done so. 
Reading Kedoshim this week, on the back of Yom Hashoah it’s hard not to look at this cornerstone verse and read it as a reference to the fate of those who die for their faith. May their memory be a blessing, and may it sanctify our lives as well. 

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