Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Leviticus:8 Project
He shall arrange them before the LORD regularly every sabbath day—it is a commitment for all time on the part of the Israelites. Leviticus 24:8
Is it all right to allow someone to live in benign ignorance if the result is somehow beneficial?
There is a story I have heard in many versions that illustrates my question. It likely originates about 250 years ago with a rabbi named Moses Hagiz, who claims to have heard it from a disciple of the sixteenth-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Scholars consider the claim unlikely…but the story is the story.
A Portuguese converso (a Jew forced to convert to Catholicism but still secretly practicing Judaism) made his way to Safed and sought to find his way back into Jewishness. He attended a synagogue where he heard the rabbi bemoan the loss of the devotional practice of the showbread – loaves left in the inner sanctum of the Temple for each shabbat. The man, believing he could reclaim his place in God’s eyes, instructed his wife to bake two loaves of challah each Friday, which he surreptitiously placed in the Ark of the synagogue where the Torah scrolls were kept. Each Friday afternoon, the synagogue’s gabbai (attendant), a poor man, would come to make certain the Torah scrolls were set for the week’s reading. Each week, he discovered the two loaves and, believing them to be a blessing, took them home. When the converso came to synagogue the next day and saw the loaves missing, he believed God had accepted his gift.
One week, the rabbi happened into the synagogue as the converso was delivering the loaves. After hearing the story, the rabbi berated the man for having such a foolish notion of God. Hearing the commotion, the gabbai entered and realized where the weekly gift originated. The rabbi berated him as well. Both men left humiliated.
As all of this transpired, an emissary from Rabbi Luria arrived and informed the rabbi that he would die the next day – his behavior had deprived God of the enjoyment unknown since the original showbread in the Temple.
I have always had two reactions to the story. Part of me finds it sweet and uplifting – a sort of “the Lord moves in mysterious ways” lesson in how good intentions can produce great results, even if they are not the results intended. Part of me finds it insulting – even if I excuse the converso’s naivete (or, perhaps, his confusion of the showbread with communion), you don’t have to be a genius to know that there is no such thing as magic bread.
But in both of my reactions, the rabbi is the biggest loser. His impatience with both characters deprives them both of what they need most. The converso needs to return to his identity and the gabbai needs to eat! But is it such a heinous sin that the rabbi needs to die for it? (And please note that the story attributes the death decree to God’s disappointment, not the humiliation of the two men.)
This story has been reworked in many different ways over the years. Like Grimms’ fairy tales, modern tellings remove all the nasty results and end in a group hug and extended family meals. I don’t like the happily-ever-after ending, either. I much prefer the tension between the mystical and the rational, and the way to preserve both. (It helps to know that Rabbi Hagiz spent much of his career promoting rabbinic authority in European and Holy Land Jewish communities.)
In some ways, this story reminds me of the tensions that are present in our discussions about immigration in this country. Inspired by the welcome that most of our ancestors received by America (if not by all Americans), some of us wish to repeat in contemporary circumstances what we imagine occurred back in the day. Looking for a better life, people show up at our border hoping against hope that their two loaves will be there to sustain them.
And, of course, there is an angry authority figure humiliating everyone for imagining a way to satisfy each other. The authority figure may be right – just as the rabbi was. But the rabbi, for all his rightness, is the biggest loser.
Maybe for the sake of the story, the rabbi had to die in the end for betraying the God he sought to defend. When a story ends, it ends. But when a real situation presents itself, there is a story beyond the story. If the converso and the gabbai were real, the former would be shattered spiritually and the latter would go hungry. Maybe the consequences would not have been fatal, but joy and sustenance would have given way to sadness and deprivation. And if the rabbi in fact did not die, then that suffering would have been on his hands.
Same thing today.
The Leviticus:8 Project
Seven days you shall make offerings by fire to the LORD. The seventh day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. Leviticus 23:8
We seem to have fascination with work, we human beings. From the very beginning of the story we tell about ourselves in Western culture, we are first and foremost concerned about work. The first two words in the Hebrew Bible mean (depending on how you translate) either “In the beginning [God] created” or “When [God] began to create.” And before we get to the end of Chapter 1, God has made human beings in the divine image and told them to get about the business of creating something themselves.
The work wasn’t so hard in the Garden of Eden, but when those first earthlings were expelled, the punishments were hard work and hard [tellingly] labor.
God’s place in the world is defined by work, and our place in the world is defined by work. In fact, the act of worshiping God (or idols) is called by one name for work (avodah) and the activity that separates us from God on special days of communion is called by another name for work (melakha). And there is even a category that combines the two, implying that we serve our occupations during most ordinary days.
Except for some negligible periods of time, in my adult life I have always worked, even during college and seminary. And with a very few exceptions, in my adult life I have always taken a full day off of work at least once a week – at least work as it is defined by the long tradition of Jewish law. The weekly opportunity to refrain is Shabbat. And the annual opportunities to refrain include certain holidays distributed unevenly across the seasons.
Abandoning work for a day each week has been ridiculed by all sorts of people at every time in history. As far back as the Romans, we Jews were called a lazy people because we didn’t spend every day in pursuit of material prosperity. But aside from the respite that a weekly sabbatical brings, it also says something about work.
Whether a person loves their work enough to look forward to it each morning or sees their work as a necessary means to survival and nothing more, no matter the satisfaction or compensation, unrelenting work is enslavement. Whether a person lives to work or works to live, if a day off is a danger to living, then work is the master who is served.
We have lots of conversations in the United States these days about the dignity of work. A friend of mine who was involved in the reform of the public assistance program once suggested to me that the way people measure worth in this country is by productive labor. I am not sure that is a universal truth, but it is reasonably correct, at least for those with the ability to be employed. Here is what is correct: the person who brings home a paycheck to provide for themselves and their household has a sense of dignity and worth. But the measurement is not the size of the paycheck. Rather, it is capacity to master a set of skills – driving an Uber, navigating a spacecraft, teaching a child to read, maintaining a household, designing the circuitry for a computer – that makes a person better than their work.
And the only way to know that dignity is to be able to set it down with regularity and pick it up again when responsibility calls.
I suppose it is my responsibility to advocate for a traditional definition of Shabbat and Jewish holiday observance at this point. There are good arguments to be made for the formality of liberation that comes with relinquishing work in a community of like-minded people and in defining that liberation in a way that comes with the satisfaction of doing God’s will as best as it has been understood across the centuries. I have also listened to Jews make the case convincingly for a less formal approach to Shabbat and to Christians make the case for “sabbath-time,” a more personal withdrawal from the work week not tied to the community calendar. As a believer, I remain something of a traditionalist. But in looking at American society, I understand a truth that applies more broadly.
Enslavement is no more defined by its extreme expression than freedom from work is defined by a traditional Shabbat alone. Without meaningful work and a living wage, including vacation time and support through medical needs, a person is enslaved to maintaining sustenance by the unrelenting sweat of their brow. Too-low-paying jobs, consultant work with no benefits, a leave policy that is without compassion makes everyone – including the business owner focused entirely on the bottom line – a slave to work, seven days a week.
As a matter of faith, we were not created to live that way. And for those without such faith, the reasonableness of treating human beings as least as well as we think to treat the environment in which we live is probably unquestioned. That’s the wisdom of a weekly celebration of self-liberation.
The Leviticus 8 Project
He shall not eat anything that died or was torn by beasts, thereby becoming unclean: I am the LORD. Leviticus 22:8
One of the necessary appliances for a kosher-observant family of carnivores like mine is a big freezer. I have never had the luxury of a local kosher butcher, so trips to kosher purveyors almost always result in provisions to last a month or more.
When we lived in Danbury, Connecticut, we were fortunate to have the services of Broadway Kosher. As the name implies, it used to be on Broadway in New York City, but the store followed its customers to New Rochelle. Sol the Butcher delivered chicken, beef and anecdotes about once a month. I remember him telling us that his doctor told him to cut back on his own consumption of meat, so he gave up his daily pastrami sandwich for lunch. And then there was the time he asked one of our friends about her holidays, and then asked after her husband, Mr. Ginsburg. “Why are you asking me about Mr. Ginsburg?” she replied. “I’m Mrs. Reichman.” “Oh, Mrs. Reichman, I thought you were Mrs. Ginsburg!” he said, and continued, “So tell me – how were YOUR holidays?”
One day, I was approached by a member of the congregation, a local police officer. There had been an accident the night before involving a car and a deer. Unfortunately, there was loss of life on both parts. The remains of the driver were attended to by the local funeral home. A local (non-kosher) butcher attended to the deer. There was a shortage of space in the butcher’s freezer, and my congregant asked if we might be willing to put the heavily-wrapped roadkill in our freezer until it was solid and could be delivered to a soup kitchen that fed the hungry.
It was the second time the officer asked me for an unusual favor. A young man spending the night in a local motel on his way to a more distant destination had accepted the invitation of a couple of locals to join them for some marijuana behind the bar. Once there, he was robbed and raped. Feeling dirtied, he went back to his room and climbed into the shower where he tried to wash away his sense of uncleanliness over the course of many hours. Other guests complained about the continuous noise of the water, which led to the discovery of the crime. The young man was Jewish, and after he was released from the hospital the next evening, my congregant-cop asked if he could spend the night at my home. We had a baby; the young man was a stranger. But he stayed. When he left with his parents the next morning, the police officer said to me, “You saved this young man’s life. He would not have survived the night alone.”
So, when I was asked to freeze the decidedly unkosher meat (deer is kosher, but roadkill is not), I did it. It didn’t take more than a day for it to freeze through, and a squad car stopped by the house to pick it up that evening for delivery to the soup kitchen. It was the second time I had been able to save life by taking “uncleanliness” into my home.
I am not a descendant of the priests, so the verse above does not apply to me directly, but I recognize the exquisite concern that this section of Leviticus expresses about keeping the religious functionaries in a state of ritual preparedness. I was the modern equivalent of the priest in those circumstances, but as it happened, it was only by accommodating one person’s perception of his own uncleanliness and welcoming the uncleanliness of the securely wrapped meat in my freezer that I actually could do my job.
Was the young victim really unclean by any standard other than his own embarrassment and humiliation? Of course not. And were the people sustained by the non-kosher meat doing anything prohibited by this code of Jewish observance? Also, of course not.
Maybe you will take from these stories that I dismiss the ancient ritual requirements as being irrelevant or as obstacles to compassion. You get one more “of course not.” These peculiar rituals, some of which can be explained and others of which seem like mere superstition, are the roots from which the Jewish life I live have grown. Turning away from a brother in need is prohibited with the same vehemence as committing the assault and violation that created his need. Eating only meat that was prepared with the pious skill of various Sol-the-Butchers is a luxury of my own fortunate circumstances, but not a standard I am supposed to impose on those without the wherewithal to predict where their next meal will come from.
There is a discipline that comes from holding close to the letter of the law. It has allowed me confidence in the “protection” of its observance. I have come to understand what it is designed to cultivate: not so much a rigidity as a flexibility.
The Leviticus:8 Project
and you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the LORD who sanctify you am holy. Leviticus 21:8
I once met a man whose doctor had told him he could never eat anything sweet. I never bothered to check the diagnosis or confirm the treatment, but I can tell you he was diligent in following the advice. He was a sourpuss, in every sense of the word. Mind you, he was not mean or confrontational. But he didn’t laugh, and his resting expression resembled a person who had just sucked a lemon. The kids these days have a name for the phenomenon – RBF. Look it up.
I still wonder if he came by that sourpuss naturally or if the behavior imposed on him by his physician found its way into his personality. We sometimes attribute characteristics to people by the uniform they wear or the fashion choices they make. We have seen every President of the United States (except maybe Ronald Reagan) turn gray over the course of their terms, presumably from the stress of the office. And these days, a red golf cap with white letters immediately identifies someone as your political ally or opponent. Can your personality and persona be shaped by externals?
At least in this particular verse from the Bible, the answer seems to be yes. It refers to the priests, the direct descendants of Aaron. After about the third or fourth generation, even following all of the restrictions on marriage, those offspring would likely be as diverse in personality as any collection of third or fourth cousins – and how much the more so centuries later. Yet the presumption is that because they are engaged in acts of sanctified ritual, the people performing those acts should be perceived as holy themselves.
Do you think that every priest welcomes the expectation and designation of holiness? I am guessing not. It is a burden to live a life in the public eye; it is more of a burden to live that public life with expectations defined by others; it is more of a burden still if your private life does not always comport with the standard imposed upon you.
As I began to formulate this column, I thought I might take yet another swipe at the current occupant of the Oval Office. The presidency comes with certain norms and expectations, and he has defied them all. But it turns out that another example presented itself suddenly and shockingly between the first paragraph and the fifth, and that is Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia.
A picture of a person in blackface standing next to a person in the costume of the Ku Klux Klan was on the yearbook page with his name and photos from his senior year of medical school – he was 25 and it was 1984. It is irrelevant if he was in the picture, and equally irrelevant if he was aware that the picture was on his page. What might have been an embarrassment to him in his pediatric neurology practice takes on a different tone when he is charged with the sanctified tasks of governing the Commonwealth.
The external circumstances of his life – serving as governor of a state fraught with a history of contentious race relations, its capital the previous capital of the Confederacy, its jewel of a university town famous for race riots in recent memory – require him to be holy. As a citizen he could excuse being tone-deaf to the costume party or minstrel show (even in 1984), and maybe even to putting shoe polish on his face to dance like Michael Jackson. But he never spoke up then, and he only spoke up now because he got caught. Blackface was incidental to the man who championed removing statues of Confederate generals from the streets of Richmond.
As it happens, I know Gov. Northam. I know him to be a gentle man and a gentleman with genuine concern for people – residents of rural Virginia, Virginians who do not earn enough or learn enough, even my own grandchildren. But though he was not born into his title, as the priests were, it is not enough to express his personal regret that as an adult (in 1984) he had not yet come to understand the requirements of holiness that come with high office – or even basic human decency.
Ralph Northam was undoubtedly influenced by the externals of his time. He grew up in a Virginia that allowed him to absorb a genteel neglect of the dignity of others – today we call that privilege. The high ethical standards expected of public servants and presumed of physicians, however, did not seem to permeate his values and exorcise the legacy he was charged to overcome.
I like to think that if my acquaintance with the sourpuss would have, once in a while, had a cookie or a Frango mint, it would have awakened him to the pleasure of a smile. I like to think that a few true friends of color in 1984 might have awakened Dr. Northam to his racial insensitivity.
But I know that people who perform holy functions will be treated as holy and carry the expectations of holiness in the minds of the people they serve. And if they cannot live up to that expectation, then they are neither priests nor civic leaders.