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Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

05/01/2020 01:15:51 PM


Shabbat Shalom! Today is 23 days, which is three weeks and two days of the Omer. The kabbalistic realm of this Shabbat strength within eternity or endurance. A prayer by Rabbi Yael Levy found on for this night of the Omer resonated with me:

We ask for the strength to act for good,

The discipline to follow through on our commitments,

The determination to act for justice,

Even when we don’t see the results we long for.

May goodness and kindness pursue us all the days of our lives.

Let us dwell in the heart of the Mystery always. (Psalm 23:6)


            This week’s double Torah portion, Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim more or less opens with the ritual of the scapegoat. The Torah describes how the priest shall make atonement for the whole of the community on the Day of Atonement: how one goat shall be offered as a sacrifice to God and the other goat shall absorb all the sins of the community through the laying of hands, then the sin-goat shall be set free into the wilderness to carry of the sins away from the camp and community. When I picture this ritual as described – at least the part for the living goat – it makes sense to me. It feels akin to our current tashlich ritual. Letting something non-human symbolically take on the things you are sorry for from the past year, and then let it go. Toss it away. Send those mishaps away from the camp and community, into the wilderness or downstream. It’s visceral and tangible and I get why it was comforting to our ancestors.

            Yet, as a modern Jew with the intervening 3000 years of history, the word “scapegoat” causes my stomach to tie up in knots and my shoulders to clench. How many times have Jewish people been the scapegoat, having all the ills of a society laid upon them, then sent away (or otherwise removed from the community), as a means for the non-Jews in power to claim its people are now cleansed? Too many times, and often with disastrous consequences which it seems we as a people are always still working to come back from when the next wave hits.

            Logically, I don’t really believe another such wave is about to hit, at least not in the United States. But that doesn’t mean I’m not worried when the mayor of New York tweets a condemnation at Jews writ large for the continued spread of Covid-19 in New York. While I’m not entirely sure how the quarantine has affected hate crime statistics as a whole, we do know that antisemitic hate crimes were steadily on the rise for the last three years or so before this. So, in an era of history when Jews are once again in the figurative crosshairs, and another factor jumps up to make people frightened and feeling helpless, eager for something to blame and somewhere to direct their energy, a carelessly worded tweet from an elected official can be downright dangerous scapegoating. Nearly a quarter of the world’s Jewish population lives in the New York tri-state area, and one small neighborhood community of Haredi Jews (most of whom don’t speak English or have internet or cable or secular newspapers) is having trouble following the rules of quarantine. And they are not the only people in New York City doing so. Many New Yorkers are forced to continue to go to work and ride the subway in order to make rent or buy groceries. Some amazing activists continue to meet to gather and deliver groceries to those struggling financially in this time. The NYPD continues to gather in large numbers in train stations without masks. For the Mayor to single out Jews is scapegoating, it is harmful to Jewish people everywhere, and it does nothing to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

            Let us send away out of the camp and far from our communities the sins of bigotry and dangerous misinformation, that we may all live healthy lives in peace.

            The second half of this week’s readings, Parashat Kedoshim contains our Holiness Code and essentially reiterates the Ten Commandments, but focuses more on the commandments ben adam lechavero – the ethics between people – rather than the commandments ben adam laMakom – the ritual observances that connect a person to God.

            As I exclaimed passionately in our Torah study on Thursday, nearly every line of chapter 19 of Leviticus extols the virtues of Judaism to me. From these mitzvot we understand business ethics and the importance of providing for those less fortunate than us rather than exploiting them. We learn to support each other rather than setting others up to fail or pushing them out of our own way as we climb the social ladder to success. We learn what it truly means to have been created in the image of God – to be holy as God is holy, to care for one another as God’s hands on Earth, to respond to the blood of our fellow humans crying out to us.

            I’ve been reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, in which a young woman, a daughter of a Christian minister, writes about the new theology she is developing. I don’t think she would agree with my view that God actually cares about how we treat one another – her view is that God is Change. However, when she writes, “Worship is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your efforts, eases your mind,” and when she explains to the new converts that the whole purpose of Earthseed, her new religion, is to form communities “where people look out for each other and don’t have to take being pushed around [by the wealthy or more powerful],” I think she would have been able to find a spiritual home in Reform Judaism. To me, this idea is what chapter 19 is all about, and so much of our halakha is developed from these ethical ideas.

            I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus, also part of this week’s double parasha, give us so-called ethical commandments that we as Reform Jews no longer find ethical. I suppose this is where Reform Judaism could use some Earthseed ideology as much as I think Butler’s protagonist could use a Reform Jewish community. God is change, Torah is an act of wrestling, and to be Jewish is to adapt and progress. Many ancient communities would have discarded a person with a disability. Ancient Israelite teachings tell us not only were the deaf and blind still parts of the community, but that others should be careful not to add hardships to their lives or take advantage of their disability. For it’s time, I believe Leviticus 19:14 was a progressive one. Now we must carry that tradition forward and acknowledge that there is no longer room in our community for some of the judgmental sexual ethics professed in these parashiyot. Relationships between honest and consenting adults (or otherwise age appropriate couples coming of age and starting to date) that don’t cause harm to others should be deemed ethical and legitimate. Acknowledging gender and sexuality as an intrinsic part of someone’s identity, and therefore relevant to their Divine spark, and THEREFORE advocating for an end to any discrimination on these bases, is a part of what it means to be holy as an image of God, as much as feeding the hungry.

            May we live up to our Divine Image, live holy lives filled with justice and compassion, and may we always remember that to care for one another is an act of worship. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780