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The Journey To Sinai From Generation To Generation: Emor

The 30th of Nisan (last Sunday) was my father’s yahrzeit, and my mother’s yahrzeit will be on the 23rd of Iyar. In their memory I will be giving a dvar Torah this Shabbat. In Hebrew, I won’t be reading from a prepared text, but this is more or less what I intend to say.  Here in Israel we are reading “Emor.” Abroad, you will be reading Emor next week.

Emor includes instructions for the kohanim (priests), including the verses many of struggle with because those with what were seen as physical imperfections could not serve. The khasidim taught us that we are all broken vessels serving God. We also have the holiday cycle, Shabbat, the counting of the omer, an eye for an eye, the death penalty for blasphemers, one set of laws for both citizens and non-Jews living among us, and leaving the corners of our field and the fallen sheaves for those living in poverty to glean. For those abroad reading Kedoshim, the commandment to leave the corners of the field and the fallen sheaves also appears in Leviticus 19: 9-10

I believe I have cited before Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s amazing commentary on the gleaning of the fields, Leviticus 23:22.:

“If not for God’s Torah, only land owners would be able to live in a way appropriate to preserving human dignity. Only they are blessed with the bounty of the fields. Those without property – the poor and the gerim – are dependent on the mercy and the judgement of the property owners: In this “progressive” era, needing to turn to them for support borders on criminality. The crumbs granted by them humiliate those who receive. But, it will not be done this way in Israel. For the wealth given to the collective grants dignified living to every individual. In Israel the fruit of the land and human toil do not belong to property owners only: But also those without property and gerim are partners with rights to part of the harvest. Their livelihood is the obligation of the wealthy, and the right of the poor. This is the order (warning) that goes forth from the commandments of the corner of the field and gleaning. Field owners have no right to any benefit from these gifts. They don’t even have the right to glean on behalf of the poor (decide who gleans in which field). (See Yam Shlomo to Khulin 8). It turns out that for God fearing landowners who act according to the Torah, part of the bountiful field is the property of the poor and the ger.  Caring for the poor is tzedakah, obligatory justice. This understanding of tzedakah is the greatest of the social victories of the Torah.?

Hirsch’s radical sounding commentary builds on a thread in our Jewish tradition that teaches us that not everything in our bank account is really ours. As we read through Pirkei Avot between Passover and Shavuot, we will eventually get to the 5th chapter:

‘There are four types of character traits in human beings: One that says: “mine is mine, and yours is yours”: this is an average person; but there are those who that this person is acting like a Sodomite. [One that says:] “mine is yours and yours is mine”: is an unlearned person (am haaretz); [One that says:] “mine is yours is yours is yours” is a pious person. [One that says:] “mine is mine, and yours is mine” is a wicked person. (Pirkei Avot 5:10)

Why would some consider normative human behavior be considered to be Sodomite behavior by some? And what exactly is Sodomite behavior?

We read in Ezekiel 17:48-50:

“As I live, saith the Lord GOD, Sodom thy sister hath not done, she nor her daughters, as thou hast done, thou and thy daughters.
Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and untroubled tranquility was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.”

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer and other midrashim follow up on this. In addition to the well known stories of how the Sodomites would not help those in need, we are taught:

“Rabbi Ẓe’era said: The men of Sodom were the wealthy men of prosperity, on account of the good and fruitful land whereon they dwelt. For every need which the world requires, they obtained therefrom. They procured gold therefrom, as it is said, “And it had dust of gold” (Job 28:6). What is the meaning (of the text), “And it had dust of gold”? At the hour when one of them wished to buy a vegetable, he would say to his servant, Go and purchase for me (for the value of) an assar. He went and bought (it), and found beneath it heaps of gold; thus it is written, “And it had dust of gold” (ibid.). They obtained silver therefrom, as it is said, “Surely there is a mine for silver” (Job 28:1). They procured precious stones and pearls thence, as it is said, || “The stones thereof are the place of sapphires” (Job 28:6). They obtained bread therefrom, as it is said, “As for the earth, out of it cometh bread” (Job 28:5). But they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator, but (they trusted) in the multitude of their wealth, for wealth thrusts aside its owners from the fear of Heaven, as it is said, “They that trust in their wealth.” (Ps. 49:6).

Rabbi Nathaniel said: The men of Sodom had no consideration for the honor of their Owner by (not) distributing food to the wayfarer and the stranger, but they (even) fenced in all the trees on top above their fruit so that they should not be seized; (not) even by the bird of heaven, as it is said, “That path no bird of prey knowד” (Job 28:7).

They were dwelling in security without care and at ease, without the fear of war from all their surroundings, as it is said, “Their houses are safe from fear” (Job 21:9). They were sated with all the produce of the earth, but they did not strengthen with the loaf of bread either the hand of the needy or of the poor, as it is said, “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom; pride, fulness of bread, and prosperous ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49).”

Back in 1991, just as the Former Soviet Union was collapsing, my wife and I were visiting and teaching there, and my wife even officiated at a Bat Mitzvah. I taught some of these texts, and one person said, “Now it makes sense that Marx was a Jew.”

But here is the thing–neither our prophets nor the Talmudic sages nor Rabbi Hirsch or other social justice heroes of mine like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were communists, or even socialists. Hirsch was  insistent that these were religious Jewish values found in the Torah. He wanted to return young Jews attracted by Reform Judaism and humanist culture to the Orthodox fold. Perhaps he oriented his commentary to this purpose, but his biography indicates that these were truly his values.“The Earth is Adonai’s” (Psalm 24:1) The planet, with all of its bounty, is not “ours.” What we think we own, is not truly ours. In fact, it is almost criminal to think that what we have actually belongs to us, and that we have the right to decide to share or not to share. When we achieve the spiritual ability to realize  and act according to this teaching, we will act differently towards our fellow human beings. In so doing, we will be serving God.

Hirsch, as an Orthodox rabbi, who was critical of Reform Judaism, socialism, liberal Protestantism and Zionism, was in dialogue with them all. For all of their differences, there were shared humanist values.

My parents had their differences, but they were also outweighed by shared humanist values. They both dedicated a great deal of time in the service of others locally, nationally and internationally, teaching me that this was part of my task here on this earth. My father was a Republican and my mother a Democrat, but after discussing matters before elections, they often as not voted the same. My father and I would have huge debates because he was a firm believer in capitalism and the free market. I was and would probably still call myself a democratic socialist. But, I have come to realize that despite our arguments, our core values were the same. As a result of our discussions, and other life experiences such as his surprise when Reaganomics led to increased hunger and poverty because the private sector did not step in to replace the government after budget cuts, he became very concerned in both words and deeds with the question of how the free marked system could meet social needs.   I would have no problem living in the capitalist world that he would have built, and neither would my mother. Hirsch would have been dismayed that my family is several generations of Reform Jews, and thrilled that my children are today Orthodox. However, we have shared values. What unites our prophets, our sages, Rabbi Hirsch, and my parents is the centrality of the human being. And, yes, maybe Marx was in some ways influenced by the traditions he rejected.

In his 19 letters, Hirsch wrote, “Is it conceivable that everything is to be of service in the world, of service to God, and only human beings are to be self-serving throughout? Your own inner awareness tells you, and the Torah states, that humanity’s purpose is to be tzelem Elokim — a likeness of God. You are to be more than everything else; you are to exist for everything else. You can know God only through God’s acts of love and justice; and, in turn, you too are called upon to act with justice and love, not merely to indulge or endure.”

Just as with Rabbi Hirsch and those with whom he debated in his day, my relationship with my parents was one of dialogue over our differences, based on core shared values.

I also came to realize that every ideology or religion or movement ever created by human beings, becomes a nightmare when in its name, and sometimes even in the name of humanity, human beings are trampled.

Rabbi Hirsch also has an amazing commentary on the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot, that I have quoted before in the context of Israeli Independence Day, Emor usually is often read the week before or the week of Israeli Independence Day. However,  it is also appropriate as I reflect upon all the generations from Abraham and Sarah through my parents, as well as the beliefs, tasks and traditions they have bequeathed to me, and that I hope that I am passing to my children:

“You have already celebrated the Festival of Freedom. You have already recalled to God the independence that you merited dwelling in your land, and eating of the bread of the Land. You have achieved the freedom and the well being of independence that usually are the ultimate goal of national aspirations. However, you should only see yourself at the beginning of your “national purpose,” and now you must begin to count towards the achievement of another goal.  That is the intent of the commandment to count the omer in Deuteronomy 16:9: “When the sickle is first put to the standing grain.” Where others stop counting, you must begin.” (Commentary to Leviticus 22:16)

This counting of the Omer has a timelessness about it, at least until the end of human history as we know it. We have left Egypt and  are in the Land, but still counting the days until we arrive at Sinai. We recall the trek our ancestors made through the desert, but our counting can also evoke the trek of the generations—a journey of faith, a journey in which we each generation makes its imprint and ads another circle of commentary to our sacred texts. Sometimes wandering in the desert. We must engage in dialogue when we have different ideas about which path to take. However, just as our Torah portion unites the service of God, care for the Land and care for fellow human beings, we are part of a covenant between the generations that we will continue step by step and day by day towards the unfinished goal we call Sinai — building a world in which we honor God by creating a better reality for all those created in God’s Image and this planet that God has left in our care.

I hope I am not causing discomfort for those who had a different relationship with their parents. However, when I recited Kaddish in a few minutes for my father, and in a few weeks for my mother, I will say that I am grateful beyond words to God, Who is “beyond all the blessings, songs, praises and comforts that we our earthly words can express,” for the gift of parents who made me part of this covenant.

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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