Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Early in the Torah we encounter a fundamental question with which humankind must struggle: Am I my brother’s keeper? After Cain kills Abel and God asks him of the whereabouts of his sibling, Cain blithely answers with those fateful words that have echoed across time. He wonders, cynically, why he has any responsibility for the physical and emotional condition of his brother. Over the centuries, we have struggled to understand that response. What does it mean to be a brother, and what does it mean to be his “keeper?” Are we merely flying “solo” through life, each of us making our own way in the world as best we can, watching out for ourselves and ourselves only? Or are we expected to demonstrate caring and concern for the welfare of others, in ways that are both tangible and intangible? Do we have any responsibility toward others, whomever they may be? Or does our obligation stop at our family (and, if so, to what degree) and at those for whom we might feel a measure of empathy?

The question of whether or not we are our brother’s keeper emerges again, in a somewhat different form, in this week’s parasha, Kedoshim, in which we find the familiar verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The commandment, which the sage Hillel chose to phrase in the negative (Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself), doesn’t clarify who exactly our neighbor is. The Hebrew text in the Torah uses the term “re’acha,” which suggests friend, companion or fellow. Is the distinction here meant to be someone who lives nearby and we see often? Does “neighbor” imply someone we may encounter in our daily routine even if we don’t know them personally?

Maimonides suggests that when the Torah uses the term “neighbor” it really means our Jewish neighbors. Perhaps that limitation on caring and consideration reflected the Rambam’s theology, or the realities of the era in which he lived. But who among us would subscribe to the notion that Jews are called on to love only other Jews are we love and care for ourselves? This week, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, resulting in the deaths of over 5,500 people and many thousands more unaccounted for and feared dead. Shortages of food, water, housing and medical supplies are making a horrific situation worse. How could we not view the people of Nepal as our neighbors, if only in the global sense? The Israeli government has already sent aid, medical teams and a field hospital to the area. We should all do something to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the Nepalese, and I urge you to click here to donate to the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund established by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey.

The question of who exactly our neighbor is and who deserves our support and caring, remains a difficult one to answer. No doubt, we can afford to be kind and considerate to everyone we meet. But the matter becomes trickier when we begin to discuss the distribution of limited funds and resources. We can’t show our love and caring in tangible terms to everyone on the world. How do we apply the “golden rule” to the distribution of charity and resources for those in need? A universalistic perspective would suggest that we ought to give to any and all human beings, wherever they may live in the world, blind to their religious affiliation. A particularistic view would hold that while we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, we can and should give greater support to the extended Jewish community. Such a position comes naturally to us, as we instinctively care for our own family before reaching out to others. Is it not logical to care for our Jewish family before reaching out to others? Some have suggested that a good rule of thumb is to give at least 50% of our resources to Jewish organizations. This is a message that our children need to consider, especially at the time they decide on a Bar or Bat Mitzvah project.

It’s worth asking: If we do not give a measure of priority to Jewish causes, who will? And if Jewish causes aren’t supported by the Jewish community, what will happen to them in the next generation?

P.S. My weekly Torah class, held on Mondays from 9:00-10:00 AM, will meet on May 4, 11 and 18.

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Judging Others

The theme of the weekly Torah portions we will read this Shabbat morning—Tazria/Metsora—is the cause and cure for spiritual impurity (not to be confused with physical uncleanliness). Causes could include childbirth, skin eruptions or bodily emissions, and cures included rituals we would consider to be anything ranging from intriguing to bizarre, as well as the offering of animal sacrifices. The state of being “tamei” or impure may be unfamiliar and strange to us (there really is no modern equivalent for it, aside from the mostly Orthodox practice of immersing in the Mikveh following a woman’s monthly cycle or washing our hands after visiting a cemetery), but it was a palpable reality to ancient Israelites. There is a great deal of material in the Torah about spiritual impurity, and a great deal more written about it in the Talmud (there is an entire order of the Mishna devoted to such matters). So it’s not surprising that most of the commentaries who write about these passages in the Torah steer their comments toward the deeper, hidden meaning they may contain. One such interpretation has to do with the importance of judging others charitably whenever possible.

In chapter 14, verse 3 we read: “The priest shall go outside the camp (to visit someone afflicted with a condition that resulted in him being impure). If the priest sees that the person has been healed of his scaly affection, then the priest (shall conduct the purification ritual).” Rather than focus on the scaly affection or the purification ritual, the commentator instead chooses to focus on the part of the verse that says “the priest shall go outside the camp.” Rabbi Eliezer ben Shmuel, a 17th century scholar from Germany, writes in his volume Si’ah Ha-Sadeh:

Why does the priest have to go forth out of the camp? Rather, the priest is the righteous one, the leader of the generation, and to him even a small sin appears enormous. But God wants the leaders to give the people the benefit of the doubt, and they should realize that had they needed to earn their living, they, too, might have sinned. Thus the Torah tells us that the priest must go forth out of the camp – he has to put himself in the place of the sinner, outside the priest’s own camp, and in that of people who have to earn their living – and it is then that the priest will see that the leprosy will be healed.

Eliezer ben Shmuel is telling us that rather than stay within the Temple or his home, separated from his people and blind to the reality of their day-to-day lives, he must “go out” and have some quality face time with them. If he remains aloof, he cannot fully appreciate their strengths and weaknesses, what inspires them to be their best and what stumbling blocks cause them to fall ethically and spiritually. Only by engaging his people in a personal encounter can he come to understand them. Interestingly, Rabbi Shmuel suggests that by “going out” the priest will come face-to-face with his own humanity and his own weaknesses. If he remains within the confines of his own space, the priest may be inclined to judge harshly those who are afflicted with the conditions that led to spiritual impurity. If he meets them in person and understands what motivates them, it’s more likely that he will be inclined to judge them charitably.

Judging others is inevitable and part of the normal patterns of interacting with others. Like it or not, we all make spontaneous judgements about the people we meet. Even so, it’s important to be aware that we do so and to make efforts to refrain from judging people harshly. If we see a person who is shabbily dressed, we might be inclined to judge them as having insufficient funds to acquire proper or clean clothing. We might begin to speculate about why it is that they cannot “get their act together.” But making those types of judgements isn’t fair or reasonable.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, a scholar and therapist who lives in Jerusalem, holds a regular discussion group devoted to finding practical ways to judge people favorably. He writes:

“A member of the group gives true-to-life situations, and everyone else offers explanations that would present the person involved in a favorable light. Someone you know is getting married and you didn’t receive an invitation to the wedding. Perhaps the person was under the impression that he had already sent you an invitation. Perhaps he sent you an invitation and it was lost in the mail. Perhaps he can’t afford to invite many people. It’s important to open your mind to all the possibilities and choose the one that’s most favorable to the person in question. By judging someone favorably, even if your assumption is wrong, you still fulfill a Torah commandment.”

Joshua ben Perachyah, an ancient sage whose words are recorded in Pirkei Avot (chapter 1:6), taught that when you assess people, tip the balance in their favor. His words are relevant today as they were when he said them 1,800 years ago, and we should keep them in mind.

Reason to Be Ashamed

This year’s observance of Yom Hashoah V’Hagevurah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, was marked, as it has been for years, with candle lightings, readings and the recitation of special liturgies. Doing so is entirely appropriate, and it should be the case that observing Yom Hashoah is considered to be a sacred obligation, in the same way that we feel an obligation to fast on Yom Kippur or participate in a Passover Seder. Remembering what happened to our people during the dark years of the Shoah should not be an option, something left to chance. Of course, no religion can control people’s thoughts and feelings. But remembering the Shoah should be ritualized, set in a ceremonial context. That is the way young people will come to understand the profound importance of remembering what happened and be encouraged to help to build a world where such things cannot happen again.

Remembering, of course, is not sufficient. We should feel an obligation to honor survivors of the Shoah, to ensure that they live the years left to them in dignity and comfort. Yet reports that nearly 50% of Holocaust survivors in Israel are living at or below the poverty line amount to reason to be ashamed. The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel estimates that despite a plan to invest nearly one billion Israeli shekels in helping Holocaust survivors, thousands live in poverty, with insufficient food and nutrition, decrepit housing, poor health and inadequate healthcare, and feelings of loneliness. Many survivors believe that their suffering will soon be forgotten.

On the eve of Passover, a story in the Jerusalem Post reported that a group of Shoah survivors who wished to hold a Seder but could not afford to do so. They did not have sufficient funds to buy kosher for Passover food and the Orthodox Mashgiach in the hotel where they finally made arrangements to hold their Seder on Friday afternoon would not let them bring in food that was not certified for Passover since it was considered forbidden to eat chametz on Erev Passover.

Holocaust survivors living in poverty, alone and afraid, is nothing less than disgrace, a reason for the worldwide Jewish community to feel shame. All of our efforts to strengthen Judaism, to plan for our future, are somehow tainted if we neglect this most sacred responsibility- to remember the past not solely with prayers and candle lightings but by ensuring the dignity and peace of those who lived through the darkness of the Shoah.

To learn how you can help Shoah survivors living in poverty, click here.

And I urge you to attend the annual Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Service at 4:00 PM this Sunday, April 19 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Maplewood. More information can be found here.

There’s Always Tomorrow

The week long observance of Passover is coming to an end and many of us, I’m sure, are beginning to think of all the chametz we’re planning to eat. After abstaining for eight days from some of our favorite foods, it will be very satisfying to eat pizza, sandwiches, bagels and donuts. Passover is a very special holiday, rich with meaning and inspiration. But let’s face it…most people can’t tolerate the dietary restrictions imposed by Pesach for more than a week each year. Would it surprise you to know that the Torah tells of a second Passover, to be celebrated a month later? In the reading for the final day of Chol Ha-Moed (the four intermediate non-festival days of the holiday), we read this passage from the Book of Numbers:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel also keep the Passover at its appointed season. In the fourteenth day of this month, at evening you shall keep it in its appointed season; according to all its rites, and according to all its ceremonies, you shall keep it.” And Moses spoke to the people of Israel, that they should keep the Passover. And they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month at evening in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did the people of Israel. And there were certain men, who were defiled by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day; And those men said to him, We are defiled by the dead body of a man; Why are we kept back, so that we may not offer an offering to the Lord in his appointed season among the people of Israel? And Moses said to them, Wait, and I will hear what the Lord will command concerning you. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any man of you or of your posterity shall be unclean because of a dead body, or is in a journey far away, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. The fourteenth day of the second month at evening they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it to the morning, nor break any bone of it; according to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it.” (Numbers 9:1-12)

I’ve always liked this passage, not because it holds out the possibility of celebrating Passover a second time but because it speaks of second chances. These verses assure us that there’s always an opportunity to reconnect with our tradition and our community. Some clarification is in order. The passage begins with a reminder to the Israelites to observe Passover on the first anniversary of the Exodus, complete with the rites and rituals that were part of the first Passover celebration. Certain people, who were unable to observe Passover because they were not ritually purified due to contact with a corpse, complain that they should not be held back from observing the holiday and they appeal to Moses. God’s advice to Moses is that they should be able to observe the holiday on the same day of the following month. This resolution seems satisfying because it enables those who could not celebrate Passover to do so.

I’ve always been drawn to the part of the verse that says “If any person is on a journey far away…” The simple meaning of the passage is that if a person was not physically in a place to offer the Passover sacrifice, he could do so the next month. But I understand these words in a more symbolic light. If a person is on a journey that has taken him far away from Jewish tradition, if someone feels alienated or disconnected from the community, then there’s always a way back, another chance to get connected. That is the nature of our religious tradition. The door is always open to those who wish to participate, to learn, to become engaged and involved.

Despite what the Torah says, there is no actual second Passover. Once I’ve made the last batch of matzah brei, once I’ve put away our Seder plate and our Pesach dishes and pots and pans, the holiday is over until the following year. But one of the encouraging messages of the holiday is that there’s always, always, an open door, a way into Judaism. Passover reminds us that it’s never too late to find a pathway back to our tradition and our way of life.

The Meaning of Religious Freedom

On Friday night Jews will gather in homes around the world for our annual Pesach Seder, a joyful telling of our people’s story of the quest for religious freedom. Using symbols and eating special foods, we will tell of our history of slavery and degradation, how we were redeemed from bondage by God and were summoned to be a holy nation tasked with embracing an ethical and moral way of life. We will tell of our rejection of intolerance and oppression, of the need for outrage about suffering imposed by the strong on the weak and that it is not right for one human being to impose his values and way of life on another. We will read about the Jewish people’s long standing mandate to honor and take care of the stranger in our midst, the commandment most often mentioned in the Torah. On Passover night, we will talk about religious freedom, what it means and why it is a sacred and cherished gift.

Religious freedom has been in the news these past days as Indiana’s State Legislature has passed a bill—the “Religious Freedom Bill”—and Governor Mike Pence has struggled to justify what appears to be a pathway to legalized discrimination based on a person’s sexual preference or religious beliefs. The very idea that a person could possibly be denied service in this country based on their way of life is nothing less than shocking. In a nation that still bears the scars of ugly racism and struggles to heal the wounds inflicted by racial intolerance, in this 50th year since the March on Selma, it is simply unacceptable for any one of the states of this great country to create a legal pathway for someone to deny service to another person because they don’t approve of their way of life or their beliefs. Such legislation does not uphold religious freedom, it impedes it.

From the Jewish perspective, the real meaning of religious freedom is the opportunity to be devoted to a special purpose and to use our days to make the world a better place. Once freed from Egyptian slavery, the Jewish people went directly to meet God at Mt. Sinai and there willingly entered into a covenant. That covenant spelled out a special way of life we were to follow, a way of life that would enrich our lives with meaning and inspire us to make the world a better place. For the Jewish people, religious freedom does not imply the absence of obligation or commitment, and it certainly doesn’t imply that we are entitled to discriminate against others because we don’t like the choices they’ve made. Rather, for us religious freedom means that we have an opportunity to do something good as individuals and as a community. We engage in prayer, study, ritual practice and celebration for many reasons, but chief among them is that these acts should inspire us to perform acts of loving kindness and to improve the world.

Tomorrow night we will speak of our journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to redemption. Our story is not one of self-pity, nor is it one written out of anger or self-righteousness. It is an inspirational story, a summons to heal the world and uphold the inherent dignity of all human beings precisely because we know what it feels like to be the victims of discrimination and oppression. It is a calling to use our religious teaching and values as a catalyst for good. Unlike what’s going on in Indiana, that is the real meaning of religious freedom.

I wish you a fulfilling and joyous celebration of Pesach. I hope that the words of the Haggadah will inspire you and that you will be in the company of family members and cherished friends. I hope that you will create new memories that will last for generations. And I hope that you will spend part of Pesach with the Oheb Shalom family (services for the first two days of Passover, Saturday and Sunday, begin at 9:30 AM).