Lessons for Israel today from Rabbi Sacks on Parsha Tetzaveh
It has been a horrifying week. My thoughts are with the families of those who were murdered — Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, Sameh Aqtash, and Elan Ganeles — may they be comforted.
In the reaction to the tragic murder of the Yaniv brothers, we have seen the peaks of kiddush Hashem (sanctification of the Lord’s name) in the lives and deaths of these inspirational brothers, and the selfless humility of their holy family in response. And we have seen the depths of chillul Hashem (desecration of the Lord’s name) in the Huwara events and the continuing commentary around it from some of our supposed ‘religious zionist’ ‘leaders’ (each deserving its own inverted commas). The terrible rampage by apparently religious boys who then allegedly davened at the scene of this atrocity besmirches our holy Torah and has made me somewhat less proud than usual when wearing my kippah on a visit this week to Europe.
With that said, the Torah continues as always to be ‘our life and the length of our days’, and it is therefore no surprise that the Parsha this week bears incredible relevance to the craziness that has enveloped our Homeland.
At first glance, it is hard to see the connection between the Kohanim’s clothes with our difficult and disunited times, but there are many.
Two particularly prescient pieces of writing from Rabbi Sacks, of blessed memory, in his seminal Covenant & Conversation commentary bring the Parsha lessons vividly to life, impeccably balanced, as Rabbi Sacks always was, delivering one critical message for the Israeli left (‘the Ethic of Holiness’, https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/tetzaveh/the-ethic-of-holiness/) and another critical message for the Israeli right (‘the Counterpoint of Leadership’, https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/tetzaveh/the-counterpoint-of-leadership/). I strongly encourage review of the full articles, as my summary is woefully inadequate by comparison.
Rabbi Sacks helps us understand what is going on today in Israel.
To the left, Rabbi Sacks issues a warning against following the narrow reductivism of Western morality, which focuses on only two core principles – do no harm, and act with fairness. While these principles are the West’s inheritance from the prophetic strand of morality underpinning Judaism, namely kindness, righteousness and justice (chesed, tzedek u’mishpat), they are limited to dealing with relations among individuals.
There are three additional principles which have long guided Jewish, and arguably universal human notions of morality, but have now largely been discarded by the West: loyalty to community, respect for authority, and sanctity. These principles are the basis for ‘Torat Kohanim’, which this week’s parsha introduces for the first time into Jewish thinking and practice. The rituals and responsibilities of the priesthood represent, in the Rabbi’s words, ‘the choreography of holiness and respect that help Jews walk and dance together as a nation’.
To quote Rabbi Sacks’ summary in words only he could have written, ‘reverence gives power to ritual, ceremony, social conventions, and civilities. It helps transform autonomous individuals into a collectively responsible group. You cannot sustain a national identity or even a marriage without loyalty. You cannot socialise successive generations without respect for figures of authority. You cannot defend the non-negotiable value of human dignity without a sense of the sacred. That is why the prophetic ethic of justice and compassion had to be supplemented with the priestly ethic of holiness.’
For many decades, the Israeli left pursued the deadening atheist collectivism enshrined in socialist internationalist ideology, not the Jewish collectivist morality enshrined in Torah. Now even socialist collectivism has gone. There is little left except Western individualism. Without a collective morality, society becomes hopelessly atomised, and with it the ills that have ravaged Western society will soon follow, among them drugs, crime, sexualisation, family breakdown, loneliness and depression. It is the rejection of these ills, and the quest to reclaim those three moral principles which protected against them, that is perhaps driving the so-called ‘culture wars’ of our times, including the emergence of the new right-wing government in Israel. Rabbi Sacks therefore illuminates for the left why these changes are happening, in terms that strip out the scariness caused by the utterly reckless way in which the right has taken up this agenda.
To the right, it is precisely this recklessness which Rabbi Sacks cautions against – there is a wrong way and a right way, a Jewish way, in which to reclaim these three moral principles. In so doing, he may well have quoted Deuteronomy (9:5) to the right, ‘it is not because of your righteousness or the honesty of your heart’, that you have been given leadership.
His opening words in the second of the two pieces could not be more important to today’s judicial reform agenda: “One of the most important Jewish contributions to our understanding of leadership is its early insistence of what, in the eighteenth century, Montesquieu called “the separation of powers”. Neither authority nor power was to be located in a single individual or office. Instead, leadership was divided between different kinds of roles.” This, according to the Rabbi, is the purpose in Torah of the division set out concerning the roles and structures of the prophets, the priests and the monarchy.
It is when one of these three institutions overstepped their mandate that bad things happened. Per Rabbi Sacks, ‘the Kohanim were essential to ancient Israel.. Their task was to ensure that Israel remained a holy people with G-d in its midst. But they were an establishment, and like every establishment, at best they were the guardians of the nation’s highest values, but at worst they became corrupt, using their position for power and engaging in internal politics for personal advantage’. Sound familiar?
Rabbi Sacks continues: ‘That is why the Prophets were essential. They were the world’s first social critics, mandated by G-d to speak truth to power. Still today, for good or otherwise, religious establishments always resemble Israel’s priesthood. Who, though, are Israel’s prophets at the present time?’
Hence the counterpoint referred in the title of the Rabbi’s second piece. There is need for a collective morality, but there cannot only be collective morality. And this is what we learn from this week’s parsha, famously the only parsha from his birth through to the end of the five books in which the name of Moshe Rabbeinu does not appear. Priests need prophets, Moshe needs Aaron, truth needs kindness, righteousness needs peace. Giving Rabbi Sacks the final word: ‘the glory of Judaism is its insistence that only in heaven is there one commanding Voice. Down here on earth no individual may ever hold a monopoly of leadership’.