The Worst Sin

What is the worst sin that a person can commit?  Asked differently, of all the things that people can do wrong, which is the worst?  The sages of the Talmud said that the worst sin a Jew can commit is Hilul Ha-Shem, literally the desecration of God’s name, any action that brings the name of God, and thus the good name of Judaism, into disrepute.  Medieval Jewish philosophers taught that the worst sin a person can commit is to deny the existence of God because when we do that there is no longer any reason to follow the laws of the Torah and refrain from any other sins.  Martin Buber taught that we commit the worst possible sin by using another person, by treating them as a means to an end.  And my teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner, taught that the worst sin someone can commit is to look at another person and not see in him the image of God.  All of human interaction, the way we treat our family members and friends, the way we relate to strangers we meet on the street, must flow from the Biblical teaching that all human beings are created in God’s image.  The ultimate sin of failing to see the image of God in another human being is the cause of many of history’s greatest troubles and tragedies, including those which have befallen the Jewish people.

The denial of the Biblical truth that all human beings are created Be-tselem Elohim– in the image of God- is the prerequisite for violence and killing.  The planting of bombs in cars or buildings that are meant to kill people can only happen when someone has first rejected the notion that the intended victims each bear the image of God.  Murder, for whatever motive it is committed, happens only when the murderer ignores the inherent divinity of the victim.

A 1974 yearbook from the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn contained this quote: “Judaism values life as holy and sees the taking of life as a terrible sin.”  That may not seem so unusual coming from an Orthodox Yeshiva.  What makes it remarkable is that it was written by Baruch Goldstein, the American-Israeli physician and Orthodox Jew who, 20 years later, murdered 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers and wounded another 125 at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.  How could any religious Jew allow his anger or passion to overcome his Jewish obligation to see other human beings as bearing the image of God?

That question, of how anyone could demean another human being and contemplate using violence to harm or even kill another person, may seem like a puzzle with an obvious solution, but it’s an agonizing, frightening problem playing out today in the State of Israel.  In the weeks before elections in Israel, scheduled for April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maneuvered to bring about the merger of two Israeli political parties- Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit- in order to ensure that votes cast for either party are not wasted and his chances of forming a right-wing nationalist coalition are improved.  On their own, neither party would likely receive enough votes to meet the threshold for sitting in the Knesset.  Only if they merge can they pass the threshold.  That’s not an unusual move in Israeli politics.  Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, and Israel Resilience, a new party led by political newcomer and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, just merged to form Kachol Ve-Lavan, the “Blue and White” party, strategizing that they would do better as a combined party (the polls support their move).

But the merger of Otzma Yehudit with the Jewish Home party is different and for alarming reasons.  As has been reported (in the NY Times and other publications), Otzma Yehudit is founded on a hateful, racist ideology.  Its two leaders, Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir, are co-founders of Lehava, a group that opposes Jewish-Arab relationships.  Ben Ari calls Arabs the “enemy” and advocates expelling them. He was denied a visa to the United States in 2012 as a member of a terrorist organization.  Ben Gvir was implicated in a 2014 arson attack on a school for Jewish and Arab children in Jerusalem and has acknowledged having a picture in his home of none other than Baruch Goldstein.  He was a radical opponent of the Oslo peace process and became known for stealing the hood ornament from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car and then saying, “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too.” Weeks later, Mr. Rabin was assassinated by a member of a group that had roots in Kahanism. (David Halbfinger, NY Times, Feb 24).  To put it another way, bringing Otzma Yehudit into the mainstream of Israeli politics, and promising them ministerial portfolios should Netanyahu become the next Prime Minister, is the equivalent of welcoming David Duke and the KKK into the United States House of Representatives or into the cabinet of the President of the United States.

Baruch Goldstein was not only a murderer in the name of religious zealotry, but he was also a follower of Kahanism, a hateful ideology spawned by the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset because it was racist and committed to terrible acts of violence in the service of their tainted view of human beings, primarily Arabs.  What is so terribly alarming here is that by presiding over the union of Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, Netanyahu has brought a hate-filled ideology from the shadowy fringes into Israel’s mainstream.  As Yosi Klein Halevi wrote eloquently in the Times of Israel, “In boosting Otzma Yehudit, Netanyahu has validated Kahanism, an apocalyptic racist theology that sanctifies hatred and vengeance. But now, thanks to the delegates of the Jewish Home party who voted to join with Otzma Yehudit and the rabbis who gave their hechsher, their seal of kosher approval, Kahane has posthumously become one of them. The party of the faithful has committed an historic act of Hillul Hashem. The good citizens of the Jewish Home have married off their daughters to thugs.  As for Netanyahu – the shadchan, the matchmaker – he has written himself into the annals of our ancient kings whose moral corruption undermined the spiritual immune system of the nation. Netanyahu has…desecrated the name of Israel.”

The leaders and supporters of Otzma Yehudit commit the worst sin imaginable- they invalidate the essential humanity of others and seek to obliterate their existence through hate, thuggery, and violence.  And Netanyahu has given this act of desecration his blessing, all for political gain and personal triumph.  This act of desecration and arrogant dominance of others is not even remotely Jewish.  Nor is it worthy of the Zionist dream that gave birth to the modern State of Israel.

Al het she-chatanu lefanecha…for the sin that has been committed before You, God, of failing to see the humanity of the other, for the sin of hubris and conceit and validation of violence in the misguided and deranged notion that some human beings are inferior, for the sin of placing political gain over principle and human decency, repentance should be done.

We can only pray that prayers for forgiveness are offered by those who have committed the worst sin we can envision.


In the Eyes of My Grandsons, I see God!

I write these words in honor of my second grandson, who was born on 5 Adar Rishon (February 10, 2019), the week Parashat Tetzaveh is read, and in honor of my first grandson Noam Yair, who was born on 12 Adar 5777 (March 10, 2017), also the week Parashat Tetzaveh was read.  Noam’s middle name, Yair, was given in memory of my father Irving Cooper z”l, whose Bar Mitzvah parasha was also Tetzaveh.

There is a story that is told about the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Polish Jewish mystical rabbi and founder of Hasidism, who one day asked his followers to come to the town square at noon the next day for a big announcement he planned to make.  The townspeople wondered what their revered rabbi could possibly have to say.  Was he ill?  Was he moving to another town?  At the appointed time, the rabbi appeared in the center of a huge crowd of people that suddenly grew silent to hear him speak.  After a moment, the rabbi said, “My fellow Jews, I have asked you to interrupt what you were doing to come here today so I could tell you…that there is as a God.”  The townspeople were dumbfounded.  This was the grand message their rabbi wanted to convey?  There is a God?  How absurd…of course, there is a God!  But as they contemplated the rabbi’s message, they began to realize how utterly profound it was.  Most of the time, they practiced the rituals of Jewish life without really connecting their behavior to the reality of God in a mindful way.  Their rabbi had simply reminded them of the most basic assertion of Judaism- there is a God.

I would expect that for most of us, the same is true.  We experience the routines of Jewish living without thinking much about God.  Rarely do we think about the nature of God, let alone have the feeling that we are connecting with God when we pray.  And then something remarkable and miraculous happens to us, and our thoughts turn to the contemplation of the Divine.  For me and my family, this week brought such a miraculous and remarkable moment.  Our second grandson was born, a second child to Eitan and Dita.  For now, he’s “Baby Boy Cooper,” as he will receive his name at his bris this Sunday morning.  As I did for my grandson Noam (and three of my five sons), I will serve as Mohel at the Brit Milah ceremony in which we will welcome this new child into our family and into the family of the Jewish People.  I couldn’t be prouder or more overflowing with joy.

The birth of my grandson is a miraculous moment that causes me to say, as did the Ba’al Shem Tov, that there is a God.  A baby’s bris is a time to affirm that there are some things that happen in this world, not because of human ingenuity and ability.  A great many things happen in this world because human beings are clever and able to make or build anything.  But the truth is that some things we can’t make or build by ourselves, and the birth of a baby is at the top of such a list.  In order to bring a child into the world, we need to forge a partnership with the Divine source of life.  The birth of a baby brings us face-to-face, in a way that is vivid and exciting, with the creation of life in all its mysterious and miraculous glory.  In the face of my grandson, I see the image and presence of God.

Here, I want to connect this idea to our weekly parasha, Tetzaveh.  In the opening verses of the portion, we read: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Exodus 27:20). This verse is the source for the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light that hangs above every ark in synagogues around the world.  The commentary in the Etz Hayim Humash (pg. 503) notes that light has always been a powerful symbol for God.  Why?  As the commentary tells us, “Because light itself cannot be seen.  We become aware of its presence when it enables us to see other things.  Similarly, we cannot see God, but we become aware of God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings.”

God cannot be seen, but there is a God.  I see God in the miraculous Divine power to create and sustain life.  I see God in my grandson Noam, growing and learning new things every day.  I see God in my new grandchild, perfect and beautiful as he is.  They are the light by which I am aware of God’s presence in the world.  They are the miracles that cause me to affirm what the Ba’al Shem Tov mythically said…there is a God!