William Daroff

Pesach and the Jewish Citizen

Our ancestors’ decision to time this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Metzorah, for the Shabbos before Passover can appear perplexing. On the eve of our great national festival of liberation, why ought we to read about various forms of ritual impurity? The scripture’s dictates here read as arcane, minute, and for some modern people, raise concerns about how women and the disabled are treated. Vayikra’s compendium of laws, the basis for the elaboration of halakha, does not elevate us emotionally in the same manner as other parts of the Torah. The rabbis, however, did not make a plotting error, or at least it does not appear to me as one. For even if we bristle at the portion’s prescriptions and proscriptions, the timeless principle of the need for order and leadership emerges. Indeed, in many of the rituals of cleansing, the kohen (or high priest) must perform the rite, mediating between humans and G-d.

There is no Temple today, and the Jew offers up the sacrifice of their devotion and prayer without the intercession of the kohen. But again, a crucial principle appears here: the entwinement of order and liberty and the role of a leadership class in securing both. The Lord and Moses laid down strict ordinances for the new Hebrew Commonwealth in texts such as Leviticus. The new nation’s hard-won liberties would have been lost, and the people carried anew into bondage, had norms and institutions not been established to regulate society and orient its members to their holy and earthly duties. The founders of these United States understood this as well—notice their use of terms like “free institutions” and ordered liberty.

This is relevant to us because we are American Jewry’s leaders. In this moment of trial, the continued freedom and prosperity of our community rests, at least in part, on our ability to organize ourselves and uphold certain values and norms. The kohanim of old might have had it easier than we since Leviticus gave them a formula for how to remove ritual impurities. We sure could use that. Iran has launched an attack on Israel just this week. The domestic situation regarding antisemitism continues to be dire. May we have the accumulated wisdom of the men and women in our community today, Amen.

About the Author
William Daroff is CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the senior professional guiding the Conference’s agenda on behalf of its 50 national member organizations, which represent the wide mosaic of American Jewish life. Follow him at @Daroff
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