Are some mitzvot (sacred obligations) more important than others? It depends who you ask. However, I imagine that most Jews who do not live a more traditional Jewish lifestyle would say that “ethical” mitzvot, such as caring for the poor and needy, feeding the hungry, or simply giving tzedakah carries more weight than observing more “ritual” mitzvot such as being Shomer Shabbat, keeping Kosher or praying three times a day.
What I just described is one way that the mitzvot of the Torah are categorized. Some are considered to be “ethical” meaning that they help regulate relationships between two people and others are considered to be “ritual” meaning that they help regulate relationships between a person and God.
When it comes to observing our commandments, I find power and beauty in both the ethical and ritual, especially in the way I interpret the fulfillment of these commandments. Prayer, for example, can be a very powerful and meaningful ritual for me. However, this meaning comes from creating a prayer ritual that is more personally relevant. My prayer life may not be aligned with more traditional Jews, however, it is a fulfillment of the mitzvah, nevertheless.
I find power and meaning through my fulfilment of ethical mitzvot. When I help provide for the poor or hungry, or advocate for the disenfranchised, or speak up for those who have no voice, I feel greatly enriched by the way I live these Jewish values.
Parashat Kedoshim articulates a system of mitzvot that blend both the ritual and the ethical. This portion in particular helps us create a communal norm about what it means to live Jewishly and what it means to be holy. We care for the poor and needy; we care for God. In this portion both the ritual and the ethical are intertwined. And for some, all of the mitzvot are can be summarized into the one declaration: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which some believe is the most important mitzvah of them all.
We tend to place the ethical over the ritual. I believe it is important to not lose sight of the meaning of the ritual as well, for as Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, “Ritual without ethics becomes cruel, ethics without ritual becomes hollow.”
May the text we read today amplify the commanding voice of our tradition and inspire us so that our ethical lives and ritual lives may be imbued with a deep and profound sense of holiness. May we find meaning and purpose in all of the mitzvot-ethical and ritual-that we endeavor to observe each and every day.