In chapter 19, holiness is (almost) wholly negative.
Not in the sense that it’s bad, rather, it’s negative along the lines of Isaiah Berlin’s concept of ‘negative liberty’, as opposed to ‘positive liberty’. Holiness in chapter 19 is overwhelmingly defined as things we don’t do, not things that we must do. Even statements which are not phrased negatively are understood this way. To safeguard the Shabbat is expressed by observing its negative commandments, to fear one’s parents and honor the elderly are expressed by not sitting in their place, interrupting them or contradicting them. And the overarching principle of ‘love your neighbor’ is famously recast by Hillel as ‘don’t do to others what you yourself despise.’
Why so negative? Wouldn’t it be more empowering to cast holiness in terms of positive actions we are enjoined to do, not just ‘shalt not’s to refrain from?
When considering his two concepts of liberty on a societal level, Berlin is actually more positively inclined towards negative liberty, and vice versa. As noble as the idea of striving for positive liberty seems, when that becomes the goal of society, authoritarianism tends to flourish, and individual liberties tend to get trampled in the service of the “shared” goal, which is usually not truly shared by all members of society.
The pursuit of holiness contains a similar danger. The first time Moshe is told to make the people holy in the lead up to receiving the Torah (in chapter 19 of Shemot, coincidentally), an interesting thing happens. Instead of limiting the people (‘hagbel et ha’am‘), he limits the space around them (‘hagbel et hahar’). Often, we see people’s striving for holiness expressed by imposing demands on others- where they can go, how they can travel, how they can dress, where they can sing. In the Israeli public space, it’s a point of constant contention, and a source of endless chillul Hashem.
The way to holiness, the Torah says, is – ‘vehitkadishtem!’. Make yourself holy. The obligation is reflexive. We are not to sacrifice others for our own sanctity. That is Molech’s worship.
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il