Rallies, herds, and sacred communities

Herd mentality can satisfy our emotional and social needs.  But it does little to nourish our moral or rational inclinations.  Political rallies play host to an ugly degrading of our national conversation.  But collective groups can ennoble and beautify.

This is brought home by two difficult passages in this week’s portion of Torah.  They appear to be about flawed individuals.  Yet understood more broadly, they are calls to communal responsibility.  Each text seems almost designed to awaken some discomfort. 

The first conveys limits placed upon a Priest who has physical abnormalities like a missing leg or a hunchback (Lev. 21:16-23).  The spirit of the law suggests that such abnormalities present a distraction from the Priestly task.  Some sages assert, however, that if such a Priest serves a community for whom his abnormality is not a distraction, where he is embraced in all of his dignity, then such a Priest may actually serve such a constituency.  In this regard, an injunction that initially challenges sensibilities turns out to be a communal call toward more inclusive communal norms.   

Next there is a story of a blasphemer, who has an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother, who curses God and is stoned to death.  The blasphemer’s demise is made more vivid by the requirement that all those in hearing distance (kol ha’shom’im) must lay their hands upon him for the administering of his capital punishment (Lev. 24:14).  Why?  One commentator suggests that the witnesses whose hands rest upon the blasphemer were also bystanders (Netziv).  Their inaction in support of an outsider, born to a foreign father, may have actually contributed to his becoming so irate so as to commit such a flagrant sin.  Placing their hands upon him as he is punished grafts some responsibility for his fate upon those who failed to support him as up-standers.  Here too a spiritually challenging passage turns out to be a communal call for championing dignity in difference.

Communities fueled by group-think rarely distill dignity.  Communities imbued with honor and collective responsibility can be sources of deep blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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