Archive for April, 2020

Those with fond memories of Mr. Rogers, or who have seen the recent sweet movies about him, know these lyrics he would sing, “won’t you be my neighbor.”  They represent the caring and love he was trying to teach children to have for all other people.  But as adults, many of us would prefer those lyrics to be “DON’T you be my neighbor!” We grow up to be sarcastic, judgmental, and intolerant of people who are not like us.  In the second part of this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kiddushim,is perhaps the most famous quote from the Torah, one that we even argue about the meaning, “Love your fellow (or neighbor) as yourself.”  Those with a universalist philosophy say it refers to everyone. Those who are more xenophobic tend to say it is only about their people.  In today’s world we tend to let our partisanship split us into the argument. Instead of recognizing that the phrase, within the context of overall Torah teaching, contains elements of truth from both perspectives, but in a differently than we tend to think.

A fuller context is to look at the Leviticus verses 19:17 and 18.                                                                                                                                                             לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha hoche’ach tochi’ach et amitecha v’lo tisa alav cheit.

You will not hate your kinfolk in your heart, rebuke your kinsman but incur no sin on their account.

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ

וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Lo tikom v’lo titor et b’nai amecha v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, ani Adonai.

You will not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.  Love your fellow (neighbor) as yourself, I am God.

These two verses are a climax in a list of moral commandments.  Our obligations are not just for us to follow them, but to help others as well.  In his commentary on these two verses, Nachmanides sees a chiastic structure between them.  For verses 17 and 18, part ‘a’ would be a prohibition, part ‘b’ a remedy, part ‘c’ a rationale.  Let’s start with part ‘a.’  Verse 17 is “You will not hate your kinfolk in your heart.” Heartfelt hatred is created by refusing to vocalize true feelings, in particular about something a person is doing wrong.  The parallel in verse 18 is, “you will not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.”  These actions are a product of heart-contained hatred, often leading to an even more inappropriate violent action.

Part ‘b’ in verse 17 is “rebuke your kinsman.”  If someone is doing something absolutely wrong, we must try to teach them what is correct.  Rashi comments that you do not do this in public, which exposes that person to shame.  Rather, you must do it privately.  This is extremely relevant today as too much rebuking is done on social media, creating shaming.  Part ‘c’ in verse 17 reflects how this impacts the person who either refuses to rebuke a wrongdoing, or does it in a publically shameful way – incurring a sin on the other wrong doer’s account.  It is a sin not to stand up for what is morally correct, but it must be done in a way that does not shame the person you know – as in your private conversation you may learn more about the person that you could not consider.  A further conclusion is by harboring anger; you might sin against the person you should properly reprove.

Part ‘b’ in verse 18 is “love your fellow (neighbor) as yourself.”  Nachmanides says this is a bit of an exaggeration. He cites Rabbi Akiva’s teaching from the Talmud, Bava Metzia 62, “Your life comes before the life of your fellow.” So the real meaning in this context of “loving your fellow as yourself,” is that we should want, and help, the other person to receive every benefit that we want for ourselves.  The ‘part b’s’ from each verse reflect the same obligations to others, but the first in a negative context, hatred, the other in a positive, love.  We need to rebuke, and we need to “love” the other person – meaning they deserve everything we do as long as our life is not in danger.  The act of reproving should be done out of love, not hatred.

Yet there is a deeper meaning to the act of love, which is connected to part ‘c’ in verse 18, “I am God.”  This takes us beyond the end of verse 17, avoiding sin, to the level of following the moral commandments outlined by God.  Now we can see the levels of what “loving” means.  Ibn Ezra comments that the hatred outlined in these verses is between the various Jewish people.  He points out how the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem was due to groundless hatred between Jewish groups.  Nachmanides, after quoting Rabbi Akiva presents that as the basic level of love, yet there is no limitation on how our love for others can grow.  That love can be for one of “us” or a very different person. Nachmanides points to how Abraham rebuked Avimelech in Genesis 21:25, a person not part of his people but who deserved Abraham’s caring.  In this week’s Torah portion, in the same chapter, verse 34 commands us to love strangers/aliens living among us the same way we love ourselves.  That verse also ends with the phrase, “I am the Eternal, your God” – a direct connection to the necessity of expanding “love your fellow as yourself.”

In the book of Proverbs 10:17, we are told, “He who observes musaris on the path of life, but he who refuses reproof goes astray.”  The word musaris translated in a numerous ways, most often ‘discipline,’ ‘instruction,’ or ‘morality.’ We should always interpret this word combining all three meanings.  We must have the discipline to teach in an ethical way. An ethical way to interact with a person through a rebuke is one evoked by love, not animosity, jealousy, or a lust for power.  Another way to provide love is to help them get the same benefits you have.  All of this begins in your relationships with your own people, but can and should grow to diverse relationships beyond those with whom you think are “comfortable.”  The Torah is clear that by caring beyond only our own people, we are displaying love for God.  We should be willing to sing to all other people “won’t you be my neighbor.”


Read Full Post »

What is the real purpose of leadership?  In ancient Israel, as in many of the ancient cultures, there were two leadership segments, the actual government rulers, and the leaders of that culture’s religion. In ancient Jewish history religious leadership was the cohanim, priests.  What was the true purpose of the priests?  According to Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary books on Leviticus, the priests’ roles were to do as much as possible to ensure God’s presence in the community.  Moses, by the end of the book of Exodus, had literally brought God’s presence into the center of the Israelite community.  Numerous Midrashimfrom the rabbinic era state how human actions either increase or decrease the Divine presence. Milgrom’s commentary teaches how in the best-case scenario the High Priests’ focus was to lead the community in maintaining God’s presence.

Leviticus shows how the different aspects of the High Priests’ duties combine with the general population’s situations.  This starts with the sacrificial system, whose purpose was to communicate to God that the people had either made a correction for something wrong, or did something right.  A sacrifice was an invitation for God’s presence to return, or to increase.  Sacrifices could not be holy on their own, but only if they properly represented the Jewish people’s actions in moving towards holiness.  There were moral commandments spelled out in detail, outlining a large part of the population’s obligations.  The Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a primary example.  Morality was presented as a requirement to increase the Divine presence in our world.

An additional approach appears in this week’s dual Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora:  how to deal with a certain kind of disease.  Tazriagives great details in how priests should examine and diagnose the disease called צָרָ֑עַת,tzara’at, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The symptoms describing what the priests would examine are not what we typically know as leprosy, but versions of different skin afflictions, anything from eczema, or psoriasis to deep infections. The priest’s diagnosis would determine if the person had to be quarantined, or was actually clean enough to stay in the community.  The priest who examined a specific case had to re-examine after a week.  If the affliction continued, he determined if it was on the level of an infection like leprosy, or something much milder.

The priesthood’s tending to the disease was part of their duty to ensure God’s presence.  There is no question that some priestly leaders were more efficient, more diligent, or more productive than others, but none of that undermined the level of their honesty or morality.  That was determined by the way a High Priest took his position and/or how he used his authority.  Stories of numerous corrupt priesthoods, most notably those egotistically desiring authoritarian power instead of focusing on God’s presence, are told in the first segment of the Talmud’s tractate Yoma. This was common during the era of the second Temple.

When we try to put this into today’s perspective, we can gain a lesson about how a leader should combine necessary medical science with duty to God.  While we can notice mistakes made in ancient times, because less was known about disease, the central point is to use medical knowledge to increase the holiness of a community.  That is not dependent, for example, on congregating in mass to praise God, but knowing when to isolate those suffering from certain diseases.  Saving lives is a key part of creating divinity in society. A true religious leader is not concerned about who shows up for an event, but who is healthy and who needs treatment – be it physical or spiritual.  The connections, between physical and spiritual illness, leap forward in this week’s second portion, M’tzora.

Beginning in Leviticus 14:33, a potential plague on the stones of houses, and how to address them, is described.  The same word is used to describe the stone plague as the skin disease in Tazriatzara’at.  A priest determines if the treatment needs to be just of the stones containing the affliction by removing or scraping them, or if the entire house needs to be torn down.  The context given in the Torah is when the Israelites took Canaan that this plague might exist in certain houses.  Rashi saw this as a way for the Israelites to find gold hidden in the walls by the Amorites, perhaps a lesson on the wrong way to focus on materialism.

A deeper interpretation of the reason for a house’s stone infections is a Midrash from Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 17. It says that tzara’at occurs to a house when the residents who have plenty of food refuse to give help to people who are starving, especially by lying. For example, if asked for wheat and they lie by saying they have none; the house gets the disease.  This illustrates how immorality causes a sick environment.  The very next Midrash in the same chapter of Vayikra Rabbahlists ten sins that will bring on tzara’at.  Besides sins against God, the list includes, stealing from the public, usurping a position for which one has no right, displaying excessive pride, using evil speech, and wrongly seeing others as evil.

If we put together an overview approach of this week’s double Torah portion, a leader truly dedicated to improving their community must correctly diagnose a disease.  They must be consistent in treating and reanalyzing the situation.  They must be aware of the immoral aspects, and cannot allow an over focus on existence simply for materialistic reasons.  God’s presence can increase only if human life is respected and served on the highest level.  Leviticus verses 14:46 and 47 show that a leader himself must be careful not to get over exposed to the affliction.  In the context of the midrashimwe can add that a leader must not get corrupted by the disease of “sin.”

These Torah portions give us a context to add key questions about the pandemic situation we are experiencing today.  How are our leaders protecting exposure?  Are our leaders making proper use of the available medical knowledge? Are they too focused on materialism over preserving life?  Are they leaders dedicated to God’s presence or to practicing their authoritarian wishes?  Is their focus on their personal situation, or what is best for the whole community? Are they providing what is needed for the poorest and most distraught?  Finally, what are, we as individuals, doing to increase the Divine presence?  Are we only concerned about ourselves or also caring about others?  Are we appreciating those who must do the most work in dealing with the problems caused by the pandemic, e.g. all health workers, teachers, deliverers, and leaders making hard decisions?  All of us can be part of the influence that when this is over, will God’s presence be more, or less.


Read Full Post »