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Posted By The Stash

This fascinating parasha is filled with verses that form the foundation of Jewish daily life. They constantly insist that the commandments should be followed because they will make people more “Godlike”—what the Catholic philosophers called “imitatio Dei”. But that explanation appears insufficient to explain the famous verse: “A person should fear their mother and father, and keep My Sabbaths, I am the Lord.” This is a verse which will reward our close analysis.

To begin, this verse—as our Sages observed—is a parallel of “Honor your father and your mother”. Read in tandem it is clear that the Torah doesn’t discriminate between parents by gender. Both mother and father are partners in the raising and nurturing of a child. But this verse has an even broader scope than this apparently cursory parallel to the Ten Commandments. Recall if you will that tradition divides these commandments in two: the first five are between God and humans (bein adam l’makom) and the next five are interpersonal (bein adam l’chavero). This verse links the two, somehow equating the observance of “my Sabbaths” (shabtotai) with “fear for parents”. But what does the verse seek to teach through this connection?

Rashi cites the Talmud in Baba Metzia to argue that even if a parent orders you to violate the Sabbath, you may not listen—and this is not a contradiction of “honoring parents”—because the verse says “I am the Lord YOUR (in the plural) God.” Thus, both parents and children are equally duty bound to serve God; parents cannot tell their children that the “divinely mandated” commandment of honoring parents allows the commission of acts that dishonor the name of God in the world.

This idea has modern applications. One of the most striking occurred immediately after the Second World War when the Allied powers drafted principles of international law at the Nuremberg Tribunal. Article IV states: “the fact that a person acted pursuant to an order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him of responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible for him.” (my emphasis) What exactly is “moral choice”? Some of its underpinnings are in the Talmudic interpretation of our verse: if a person claims their parent ordered them to break the Sabbath, they are told that a Greater Power exists to repudiate their reliance on parental authority. While keeping the Sabbath is not a universal moral imperative, certainly the Noahide commands to desist from murder, rape, robbery, and adultery are.

And this is the essence of “holiness” which is the subject of our parasha. For Jews, a great deal of holiness is found in the particularism of mitzva observance. But many of the mitzvoth allude to a broader scope and perspective. There is a higher law that prohibits humans from hiding behind legal fictions to commit acts of genocide, terrorize their people, and intimidate them through all manner of brazen acts. Whether that legal fiction bears the name of a dictator or a god is totally irrelevant—so long as a moral alternative was in fact possible—these acts are illegal. Certainly we can legitimately argue over what constitutes the possibilities of moral choice. Certainly not every perpetrator is equally guilty. Indeed, holding an entire nation culpable en masse for genocidal acts has proven to be wrongheaded zealotry. But, we must not allow these reasonable issues to cloud over the one key issue: there is an absolute morality in this world, and violaters of the core Noahide principles must be consequenced by all civilized nations. Using sacredness to sanction genocide removes the holiness from our world and makes the wait for the Messiah even longer.

Posted By The Stash

The Talmud teaches at the end of Massechet Megillah that we must learn the laws of each holy day 30 days in advance. In other words, we should have begun studying Pesach right after Purim.

Our Torah portion, while seemingly related to Yom Kippur, does teach us about Pesach as well.  An article commenting on these connections has been posted by the Canadian Yeshiva, written by Stashover member Mikael Swayze:

Posted By The Stash

The moment we realize, as our commentators through the ages have insisted, that the disease of tza’ra’at described in this parasha is a uniquely spiritual punishment that physically manifests itself upon those who speak derogatorily of their fellow humans, we can truly understand one of the key values of Intelligent Judaism. We are told that the person who is diagnosed as having tza’ra’at is openly proclaimed as being “impure”. In point of fact, the Torah informs us that their illness was proclaimed formulaically and publically: “and you shall proclaim ‘unclean, unclean.’” After being publically singled out, the person had to move away from the rest of the Israelite camp. Once again, the Torah’s language is blunt: “they shall be alone, their residence shall be outside the camp.”

Such public identification, bordering on shaming, and the consequence are very significant psychologically and physically. The person afflicted by tza’ra’at has a problem: they are unable to socialize appropriately with others in their community, preferring instead to spread rumours, lies, and calumnies that tear at the social fabric. Given Judaism’s emphasis on the importance of community, this behaviour poses a very serious challenge. This explains why shaming such an individual is permissible, despite Jewish law’s concern for not embarrassing people. After all, community depends on trust and we have all seen the tragic results of such behaviour, especially in an age of cyberbullying.

But the remedy proposed by the Torah lies at the heart of our discourse. The habitual calumniator is sent outside the social circle, where they are forced to be alone. The Torah’s term for this is “badad”. It is no accident that the first verse of the Book of Lamentations, traditionally read on Tisha B’Av for it, describes the destruction of the Temple. It describes the desolate city of Jerusalem in its first verse: “Aicha yashva badad”—“how tragically you [Jerusalem] sit all alone”. And our Sages have made the connection: the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, blind hatred between Jews spurred on by people who spread evil rumours among their fellow Israelites. Being alone—with enforced time to reflect on how their words alienated others—is a fitting consequence. Their words have boomeranged—now they are the impure. What they sought to do to others has come upon them.

The Torah’s consequence follows the expectation that this type of person will see their exile to the periphery of society as a warning, and seek to improve. But history tells us that this does not often happen. Many people respond to being marginalized—even for legitimate reasons—with violence. Judging from a recent police presentation on cyberbullying in my school, things are getting worse and it is harder to respond to bullies than ever. So what to do? Improving the world begins with us. We must constantly self-improve and teach others by example. Intelligent Judaism stresses intellectual honesty and ensuring that deed matches creed. Our prayers and learning are meaningless if we do not transfer them to our daily lives. This is certainly the time to begin. As Spring finally emerges, the image of Pesach appears. The Chassidim have long argued that matza—with its lack of “leaven” – “arrogance” – reminds us that we are half a year removed from our vows of self-improvement taken at the High Holy Days. It is time to recalibrate that most misused organ, our mouths. Let us speak words of holiness that redeem others and lighten their burdens as the Feast of Freedom approaches.




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