By Henry Morgen, 28 April 2018
Shabbat shalom. Today marks half a century since my bar mitzvah. It really doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. It also marks a bit over a year and a half since the last time I gave a d’rash here. Oddly, that seems like a long time. Isn’t it interesting how elastic our perception of time is? When I spoke last it was on Shabbat Ki Tavo and I focused on what I called “our place in the universe.” I’m going to stay somewhat connected to that theme as we explore today’s par’sha. The second half of our double portion today opens with Chapter 19. It is a very unusual section of the torah. It’s referred to as the holiness code. Most of the rest of the book of Leviticus that surrounds it is full of details about the sacrificial rite that the Levites and Cohanim were expected to conduct on behalf of the community. Chapter 19, though is an ethical code that is the basis of much of Western civilization’s legal code today.
To fully appreciate the significance of the opening lines, it’s important to look at the main message that the text is trying to convey. “Adonai spoke to Moshe saying: speak to the whole community of Israel and tell them, ‘you shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy.’” First, I want to point out the extra words in this introductory sentence. It’s not “speak to the community of Israel”, but “speak to the whole community of Israel and tell them.” This extra emphasis makes it clear that each and every one of us is being addressed. Here’s the bottom line up front, and the rest of my remarks are in support of this conclusion: God expects us to be responsible for finishing the world he created and bringing about a more perfect world in which to live as a result. That’s a “huge ask” in modern parlance, but it’s completely in line with the entire arc of the Torah, the prophets, the writings and the tradition as understood by all the brilliant minds that didn’t veer off course along the way.
As I walk us through the holiness code notice that each segment is punctuated by the phrase “I, Adonai, am your God,” or, “I am Adonai.” What then are the key expectations of this covenant?
- “A person must fear his mother and father and observe Adonai’s sabbaths.” That is, one must follow the rules and traditions from his most intimate teachers and from God.
- “Don’t worship false gods.” This is a biggie in that some Jews have turned Judaism into their god. God is not bounded by Judaism. Otherwise He would not be Melech Ha’olam.
- To paraphrase the next grouping it says, “When you make a peace offering, don’t turn this into a feast that lasts more than two days. When you harvest your fields leave the corners untouched and the fruit that falls to the ground where it lays so the poor and the resident alien can eat.” This is an admonition not to be ostentatious, not to be gluttonous, and to ensure that the less fortunate in our communities are able to sustain themselves.
- Paraphrasing again it says next, “Don’t steal; don’t act deceitfully; don’t debase My name.” This sets a baseline of ethical behavior expected from everyone.
- “Don’t coerce your neighbor. Don’t rob. Don’t withhold a day laborer’s wages. Don’t insult the deaf. Don’t obstruct the blind.” This is ethics taken to a higher plane. You must put yourself in the place of your fellow and be sure to treat him at least as well as you’d want to be treated if you were he.
- This next grouping needs a lot of paraphrasing based on the translations I’ve seen. Roughly it says, “You shall not judge unfairly. Don’t favor either the poor or the rich. Judge your neighbor fairly. Don’t gossip. Don’t ignore or benefit from the pain of your neighbor.” In a community it is essential that everyone is treated fairly and with respect. Furthermore, it is important that when someone is suffering, we do what we can to help them mitigate it.
- “Don’t hate your relatives. Provide constructive feedback to your neighbor, and don’t be led astray because of him. Don’t take revenge or bear a grudge against your relatives. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So far, we’ve learned that holiness means establishing a model society. Treat everyone with the respect they deserve. Don’t be led astray from doing the right thing. This is Adonai’s expectation for all of us. The chapter continues by addressing this long list of issues:
- Don’t take advantage of unequal relationships
- Allow trees to mature before harvesting them for food
- Don’t eat blood
- Stay away from divination, body mutilation or tattooing
- Don’t degrade your children through prostitution
- Observe Adonai’s sabbaths and revere Adonai’s sanctuary
- Don’t worshiping the dead
- You must respect your elders
- Treat a stranger that resides in your land the same as a citizen; love him as yourself, because you were strangers in Egypt (remember)
- Maintain one set of honest measures for all transactions
Finally, it sums up with “I, Adonai your God, took you out of Egypt. You will observe My laws & norms. I am Adonai.” This is God’s expectation for us as a nation of priests.
So, how are we doing? We seem to need a performance review every year on Yom Kippur. Some of us even have self-evaluations as many as three or more times each day. What’s an imperfect being to do? First, we should be grateful that we live in a part of the world that allows us the opportunity to think about this very thing and not spend most of our thoughts and energy trying to simply stay alive. Then we should consider how we can individually and in groups invest some of our energy to helping to bring about this better world within ourselves, our family, our community, our country and our world.
To be a light unto the nations we must act on what we’ve heard. From the very beginning we learn that we must be good custodians of the planet that we have been given to live on. We are told to choose life and the blessings rather than the curses. We are assured that God’s rules are not far away and difficult, but they are very near to us and simple to follow. We must do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. We must pursue a just justice. We must not stand idly by when others are in need, but we must love the stranger as ourselves. Each of us is only capable of some small part of this enormous effort, but our tradition says we can’t desist from taking action.
I’d like to close with a poem that is outside our Jewish tradition, yet it has resonated with me since I first heard it. It is by Kendrew Lascelles, and I first heard it on a track on the album Chicago III:
When all the laughter dies in sorrow and the tears have risen to a flood
When all the wars have found a cause in human wisdom and in blood
Do you think they’ll cry in sadness? Do you think the eye will blink?
Do you think they’ll curse the madness? Do you think they’ll even think?
When all the great galactic systems sigh to a frozen halt in space
Do you think there will be some remnant of the beauty of the human race?
Do you think there will be a vestige, or a sniffle, or a cosmic tear?
Do you think some greater thinking thing will give a damn that man was here?
I have tried to live my life in such a way as to move the needle toward yes in answering that last line. That is what it means to strive to be holy. For those who haven’t thought about this in this way, I encourage you to join me.