Yael Eckstein | February 13, 2024
“You are to be my holy people. So do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts; throw it to the dogs.” — Exodus 22:31
Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Mishpatim, which means “laws,” from Exodus 21:1–24:18.
According to Jewish tradition, when Moses ascended to Heaven in order to bring down God’s Word to the people, the angels protested. They knew that the Bible was God’s greatest treasure, and they argued that flawed humans were unworthy to receive it.
In the words of Psalm 8:4-5, the angels cried out, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them… You have made them… lower than the angels.” Yet, in spite of this fact, the angels lamented that God “crowned them with glory and honor.” The angels, who were created as perfect beings, felt that they were more deserving of God’s treasure.
In defense of humankind, as tradition teaches, Moses addressed God and asked, “What is in your Torah?” God responded, “I am the LORD your God, who took you out of Egypt.” Moses turned to the angels and said, “Were you in Egypt? Did you experience darkness and pain? Of what relevance is the Torah to you?” Moses continued with this line of questioning the angels, reviewing God’s directives in the Bible and demonstrating how they are completely irrelevant to angels. Angels don’t have to deal with temptation, jealousy, or any of the conflicts that humans struggle with.
Our Human Holiness
People, on the other hand, deal with all kinds of darkness — both out in the world and within ourselves. However, that is where our greatness lies. Angels may be beings of light, but only human beings can take darkness and turn it into light. Only people can overcome evil desires or extend kindness even when they don’t feel like it. There is nothing extraordinary about doing the right thing if there is no desire to choose otherwise. But when a person overcomes character flaws in order to serve God, that is true greatness. That is the true source of our holiness.
In this week’s Torah reading, God declared, “You are to be my holy people…” Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, an 18th-century rabbi, explained: “You shall be holy, but as people… The Lord of the Universe has no lack of angels in heaven.” When God gave us His Word, He desired human holiness, with all of our imperfections, not the holiness of angels.
Sometimes people think that their flaws make them unworthy; but, in fact, the opposite is true. Our greatness lies in our weaknesses… and our unwavering commitment to overcome them.
What character trait do you struggle with most? Instead of seeing it as something that brings you down, think of it as the vehicle through which you can achieve greatness.