Reading these words, many of us will begin to hum the song made popular by the 1980’s group Human League. For those who came of age a little later, the 2016 song by Rag’n’Bone Man may be familiar. Often, we hear these words as an apology. Somehow, when we fail to reach the lofty expectations of perfection our humanity is to blame. While popular music weaves the idea into melody, the true artistry of human achievement is highlighted in the Torah thousands of years earlier, particularly in the words we’ll be reading this week in the section entitled, Kedoshim, or Holiness.
The brief, but consequential, section of the Torah describes the ethical imperatives to treat our fellow human beings with dignity. The essential teaching, “Love your fellow as yourself,” is found in these chapters. There is a measure of certainty in the diverse list of interpersonal obligations, headed by the banner, “You will be holy, because, I, YHVH your God, am holy” Texts like these reinforce the impulse to read the Torah as a declaration of faithful certainty, particularly because there are no questions surrounding the complexities of preserving the human dignity they describe.
Of all the values we hold precious in our lives, though, human dignity feels far too easy to violate. How often do we see our fellows disregard the ragged and broken individual with a hand out for help because they’ve become part of the invisible landscape of our world? Or, how do we wrestle with the enormity of devastation that has resulted from some catastrophe, like an earthquake, or a pandemic, or war? When we feel vulnerable or threatened, how quickly do we rush to self-preservation before taking on the concern for the other?
At its core, the Torah details circumstances that guide us to overcome our impulses. In these chapters, they are explicit and metaphorical, including:
Offering and enjoying sacrifices in a timely manner
Leaving some of your wealth for those in need
Don't use God under false pretense
Don't practice fraud
Don't insult the deaf
Don't put a stumbling block before the blind
Don't profit by your fellow's failure
Don't hate others in your heart
Don't bear a grudge against others
Love your fellow as yourself
These are the cornerstones on a path toward human responsibility. There isn't any threshold or standard to measure just how much care you must provide here, either. The uncertainty isn’t whether you should care. But, there is a real question of how much care is enough.
Being human isn't some predefined amount of moral goodness that qualifies us to be human-enough. If so, we would be singing those songs of blame to salve our guilty conscience all the time. The measure comes from the acts, done once or repeatedly, to reinforce our commitment to the dignity of others and ourselves.
The language of command, “You. Be holy.” may seem like an impossible standard to achieve, but when you discover that compassionate, dignified, and responsible behavior are the measures of holiness, such a quest for perfection is attainable. Because there isn't a certain amount here to know whether we truly are being holy, we can take inspiration from the principles of human caring. Just as we said it is easy to violate dignity, the quest for dignity is immutable, nonetheless. The Torah ultimately teaches us that being ‘only human’ is a striving for dignity of our fellow human beings and all that lives in any moment.