Arik Ascherman

From Plague to Holiness Via Independence

I try to give a dvar Torah at my synagogue (Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem) between my father’s yahrzeit on the 30th of Nissan (Last Friday) and my mother’s yahrzeit on the 23rd of Iyar.  This dvar Torah is partially based on the dvar Torah I gave this past Shabbat, linking between Tazria/Metzorah we read last Shabbat, Independence Day and this week’s Akharaei Mot/Kedoshim.

I have often noted that we usually read Parashat Kedoshim, with it’s vision of what it means to be a holy people, on the Shabbat before or after  Israel’s Independence day. This year, because we will be reading the double portion Akharei Mot/Kedoshim this coming Shabbat after Yom HaAtzmaut, I also had the opportunity to think about what the double portion of Tazria/Metzorah has to teach us about the meaning of our independence.

Maybe this is always the human condition, but it seems to me that we are now particularly living in a time of liminalities. As we count the omer, we are aware that we are on our way between Egypt and Sinai, even though we are living in the Land of Israel. As our leaders resume discussions on the judicial revolution, we are somewhere between hope and dread.  Maybe, as Arkady Duchin wrote and Arik Einstein sang, we are between confusion and truth.  We have gone from Holocaust and memorial remembrances to celebrating independence.  And yes, we are between plagues of Tazria/Metzora, and “You shall be holy.” My rabbi and teacher Larry Hoffman taught us that liminal moments are fraught with danger and with potential.  I say that every crisis is an opportunity.

In Metzora, we read of diseases and plagues that affect our bodies, our clothes and our homes. There are a dizzying array of conditions and colors: There are scales and eruptions and discharges.  There are Swellings, rashes and discoloration that can be external or deep. They can be red or white or green or yellow.

My “favorite” plague is the plague in the stones of our houses. In Metzora, we read of diseases and plagues that affect our bodies, our clothes and our homes. There are a dizzying array of conditions and colors: There are scales and eruptions and discharges.  There are Swellings, rashes and discoloration that can be external or deep. They can be red or white or green or yellow.

With  all of the divisions threatening the very  fabric of our society, almost all agree that there is a plague in our national home.  Some will attribute it to former Chief High Court Justice Aharon Barak and his red leftist minions. Others will attribute it to the Czar Netanyahu and his white army.  Some think the true danger is the green Islamists, and others yellow journalism….  Some see externally obvious causes, while others believe there is a nefarious deep state.   And, who are today’s priests who can rule whether or not there is a plague? Who appoints them?

Anybody who knows me knows that having been advocating for human rights for almost 28 years, I know that the plague didn’t begin with the November elections. At best we have an Athenian democracy for some.  Does the Israeli single parent mom opening the empty refrigerator really have the ability to take time out from the struggle for survival in order to be a full participant in our democracy?  Without a Bill of Rights and with many who believe that whatever the majority decides is “democratic,” is there democracy for Israeli Arabs and other minorities that loses almost every “democratic” vote when the majority “democratically” decides to trample their rights?

At the beginning of this month we remembered the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  While many of his compatriots in the civil rights movement demanded that he stay “on message,” his good friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others convinced him that he must speak out against the Vietnam War. Leading his first anti war demonstration in Chicago, he said, ““The bombs in Vietnam explode at home—they destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America”  While he first penned “injustice anywhere is a thread to justice everywhere” in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he eventually applied this to Vietnam as well. And, almost every word of his speech at Riverside Church with Rabbi Heschel at his side could be applied to the Occupation.  Despite Athens, we can also say that “A lack of democracy anywhere under our control is a threat to democracy everywhere under our control.”

Not all will agree with my definition of the plague afflquicting us, but almost all feel that there is a plague in our home and in the national body.

Connecting between the plagues in last week’s Torah portion and the ills of society is not an original idea. Many know that our sages associated the skin afflictions we read of with “motzie shem ra,” speaking ill of or slandering others.  However, commentators also connected between the physical and the moral regarding plagues in houses. The khassidic commentator Kli Yakar says that the plagues strike our houses when we don’t share with others the bounty with which God has blessed our houses.  Like the Sodomites, we say that we deserve the credit for all that we have, and therefore why should we share it with others?  We deny God’s role in our blessings. This is a form of idolatry, and Kli Yakar therefore connects the plagues in the stones of our private home stemming from our believing that God’s blessings are ours alone with the sin of idolatry leading to the destruction of the first Temple.

Appropriate for Independence Day, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch reminds us that this laws regarding a plague in our houses are only in force in the Land of Israel. He also teaches that this is connected to the unwillingness to share with others, and directly quotes Pirkei Avot that while the one who says “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” seems to be the quality of an average person, some see it as the quality of the Sodomites for the reasons I have already mentioned.  If Kli Yakar hints that the sin of stinginess is not only personal by connecting the plague in a private home  to the national affliction that led to the destruction of the Temple (In Hebrew, the word for “home” is part of the word for “Temple), Rabbi Hirsch is even more direct. He says that the personal is a reflection of the societal

“Social sins give rise to afflictions – as a sign of God’s anger. The Sages specifically cite one sin as the main cause of the appearance of household afflictions: selfishness that stops a person from reciprocating kindness and leads him to refrain from helping and assisting others. “As for him the house” (verse 3) – “that his house is dedicated to him.” He acts as if his home is meant solely for himself. He practices sodomy, and places his relations with people on the line of judgment. He says:  “Mine is mine and yours is yours” (see Avot 5:10). He forgets that justice must be supplemented by charity—that the diminishing power of ownership must be supplemented by the multiplying power of love. Only in this way will society become a Jewish national society, and the individual existence of each and every “home” within it will be justified. In the Land of Israel, which is the land of the Torah, the scourges protest vehemently against such a futile and so loveless conception of justice.”

So how do we move from the goal expressed in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy+(Leviticus 19:2) How do we achieve the fusion of the spiritual, ritual and ethical that this Torah portion contains?  Between my parent’s yahrzeits, how to we obey the cmmandment, “You shall each revere his/her mother and his/her father” (19:3). We are commanded to keep the Sabbath, follow the dietary laws, treat our laborers fairly,  take care of the weak and those living in poverty and the non-Jew living among us.  We are to maintain sexual purity, respect the land, honor the elderly and practice honesty in business….  If we do so, we will live in a Land of milk and honey. If not, the Land will spew us out.

Today our plague is double. It is not just the problems that different sectors of society identify, it is also the way we talk with and view each other.  As we read through Pirkei Avot between Passover and Shavuot Hillel teaches not to separate ourselves from the community, not to judge others until we have been in their place (2:4) Rabbi Eliezer taught that the honor of our fellow should be as important to us as our own, and not to be quick to anger. (2:10). Rabbi Elazar teaches that publicly embarrassing others is one of the actions that denies us a place in the world to come. Perhaps we need to avoid conflict at all cost. I don’t remember my parents fighting in front of us even once, even though on certain issues they had very different opinions. My father was a Republican and my mother a Democrat.  Like many U.S. families the year Donald Trump was elected, there were huge debates around the Thanksgiving table. My mother got into an argument with my brother, and then stopped, saying that her relationship with her son was more important than the argument.

But the fact that my parents didn’t argue in front of us didn’t mean that they didn’t respectfully discuss their disagreements.  In the end, my parents ended up voting the same way. If Arakady Duchin wrote that the solution to our liminal reality is love, and Rabbi Hirsch also teaches that our concept of justice and of ownership must include love of others. My parents love for each other also included respect for each other. Refusing to debate disagreements is not respect.

And, as I have written in the past, in last week’s Torah portion we are taught that we sometimes must remove stones with plague from a home. As radical as that may seem, not doing so may very well lead to the situation in which the entire house must be torn down.  Avoiding conflict in our national home, could lead to our national home’s destruction. While Pirkei Avot teaches us respect to other human beings, we are also taught to be wary of the motivations of government and authority. (2:3). One traditional explanation of “When nobody is acting with human decency, you much try to be the one who does” (2:5) is that this refers to our obligation to step in when officials holding responsibility do not do their job.  We are taught that in order to avoid wrongdoing we shoujld know that there is an all seeing eye, an all hearing ear and that all our deeds are being written down. The idea is to be aware that God is aware of all of our deeds. However, human rights work can often be making sure that others are aware that their actions do not go unnoticed.

We learnt last Shabbat’s reading from Pirkei Avot the importance of the heart: [Rabban Yohanan] said unto them: go forth and observe which is the right way to which a person should cleave? Rabbi Eliezer said, a good eye; Rabbi Joshua said, a good companion; Rabbi Yose said, a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said, foresight. Rabbi Elazar said, a good heart. He [Rabban Yohanan] said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach, for in his words your words are included. [Rabban Yohanan] said unto them: go forth and observe which is the evil way which a man should shun? Rabbi Eliezer said, an evil eye; Rabbi Joshua said, an evil companion; Rabbi Yose said, an evil neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said, one who borrows and does not repay for he that borrows from man is as one who borrows from God, blessed be He, as it is said, “the wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous deal graciously and give” (Psalms 37:21). Rabbi Elazar said, an evil heart. He [Rabban Yohanan] said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach, for in his words your words are included. (2:10)

I agree that the balance we need to create between respect and respectfully fighting for our values comes down to our heart, as an organ that sees and feels. However, I don’t think that our heart should be distinguishing between a good and a bad neighbor or companion. We need to be respectfully, but honestly engaging those who we think are bad companions or neighbors, not shunning them.

Building a holy and decent society requires the correct balance of knowing when to back down in order to preserve society and when to fight in order to preserve society.  We must know when to respect difference, and when to respect others by engaging them in argument.  We must differentiate between tearing out stones from our home in order to destroy the home, and tearing out stones in order to preserve our home.

When our heart is our spiritual eye, we will be better prepared to negotiate this because we will see what we learn in the third chapter of Pirkei Avot we will read tomorrow afternoon. We will be able to see the human being, and God’s Image in every human being.

“He (Rabbi Akiva) used to say: Beloved is the human being for s/he was created in the Image [of God]. Especially beloved is s/he for it was made known to him/her that s/he had been created in the Image [of God], as it is said: “for in the image of God He made the human being” (Genesis 9:6). “ (3:14)


As we continue on our post-independence journey and seek to move from Athenian democracy to  a truly democratic society for all embodying “You shall be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy,” may our hearts be up to the task of seeing God in every human being.


Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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