Shabbat Akharei Mot/Kedoshim: Plumbline Ethics

Some of us are lucky enough to call ourselves fortunate these days, if despite the pandemic we are feeling well and our greatest challenge is cabin fever. We know that so many are suffering, both within our community and beyond. 

How to respond? What can we do in these days to share whatever we are lucky enough to have? How not to be dragged down by despair and fear in these strange and uncertain times?

We are fortunate in another profound way: we have an ancient tradition that guides us toward justice at all times. The ancient Israelite prophet Amos once used a wonderful metaphor for the Jewish idea of justice: he called it a “plumbline.” Our ancestors learned about the plumbline, אנך anakh  in Hebrew, from Egypt, where it was developed over four thousand years ago.

A plumbline, held in the hand of a worker on top of a wall, is a weighted string. When allowed to hang freely it shows the “plumb” angle and allows those building to avoid creating an off-centered structure.

Jews and those who love them who belong to and are informed by Jewish community and its ethics are lucky: we are never adrift, wondering how to act or react, how to initiate or respond – how to help and how to live.

This week our parashat hashavua includes a direct treatment of this theme. Whether your issue is how to vote in our local elections, how to figure out what you can do to share what you have safely and effectively, or just how to think about your life this week and next, the guidance for Jews is clear. A few examples:

1. That which we are lucky enough to have is not ours alone, according to the Rabbis who developed our justice tradition. That which we’ve worked for is only rightfully ours once we’ve shared it (the law of tithing is of Jewish origin). The work of our hands is not kasher  until it is shared – that goes not only for produce but for other kinds of productivity.

וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Lev.19.10)

2. We must insist upon the truth, we must support those who work to find and uphold it, and we must speak truth ourselves. While it’s tempting to become cynical and adapt our expectations to the shocking deceit displayed by those with power over us, that way is not plumb, to use Amos’ image. That house will fall.

לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹ֑בוּ וְלֹא־תְכַחֲשׁ֥וּ וְלֹֽא־תְשַׁקְּר֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ בַּעֲמִיתֽוֹ׃

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. (Lev.19.11)

Erev Shabbat falls on May Day, long associated with the celebration of all those who labor, i.e. all essential workers. The plumbline of Jewish justice is not swayed by nightly applause when cheers do not have the ethical effect of just wages, access to care for all regardless of social status, and respect for human dignity among all people. 

לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל לֹֽא־תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (Lev.19.13)

You shall be holy in all your doings. That is the clear Jewish plumbline by which we can check our words and our doings. And what is is to be holy? It is not to give in to cynicism, not to despair of the effectiveness of your acts, and not to forget that you are part of an ancient, incredibly wise tradition of human beings striving to understand how best to live our lives in gratitude for the gift of life we are given.

Need more support for your choices? Torah study will sustain you for the rest of your life if you immerse yourself in it. It will help you hold that string steady and see how it falls clearly, all the days of your life.

Shabbat shalom

Shabbat Akharey Mot-Kedoshim: In All This Death, Where Is Holiness? Right Here at the Door

How often does Torah arouse human beings, how often does she raise her voice in every direction to awaken them! Yet they all sleep, with slumber in their sockets, neither observing nor caring….Woe to them, woe to their souls! For Torah admonishes them, saying, “Whoever is a fool let him turn aside here, the one who lacks heart.”…What is “he who lacks heart?” Rabbi Eleazar said, “Lacking faith, for one who has no faith surely lacks heart.” (from the opening commentary of the Zohar to parashat Kedoshim.)
This week we have a double parashah again. Akharey Mot, “after the death” and Kedoshim, “holy.” Both refer to plural situations: the first reminds us of the death of the two innocents, Nadav and Abihu, who died when they came too close to power they did not understand. The second is the famous command spoken to all Israel “You shall be holy as I ‘ה am holy.”
The not-uncommon juxtaposition of these two titles has long invited the teachers of our tradition to offer commentary, but not the kind you might expect. Judaism does not promise that there is some holiness that one can only acquire after death, in some post-Earth existence. Rather, we are to seek holiness in our daily lives.
But first: to define holiness in ancient Jewish terms. The term kadosh (the singular) does not mean “pious” nor does it mean that we are to withdraw from life and its challenges in order to pursue some notion of purity. Kadosh means “set apart” or “special,” in the way that we regard another person with whom we share a committed relationship to be special in a way no one else is (which is why the Jewish wedding ritual is called kiddushin, a variation on that same term).
So we might understand this command as one which urges us to hold ourselves separate. This leads to the question from what?
 
In traditional Jewish Torah learning fashion, we consider the answers offered us from within the text itself, first, the juxtaposition offered because this year we are reading Kedoshim together with Akharei Mot. The word death is all too close to us in these days, on so many levels of perception and experience:
Deaths of human beings we witness through media – from natural disasters, by way of human evil, or because of human mistakes.cDeaths of human beings who live within our own communities – African Americans, Trans people, all those at risk because someone values their lives less.  Deaths of those near to us, or even the looming prospect of our own. Everywhere we look: from honor killings to occupations to flash floods to police killings to drug wars to serial killers
And there are other kinds of death – we experience the death of trust, of hope, of the belief in tomorrow that helps the living to summon another sunrise.
In all this death, where is holiness? It is right here: in the act of one who, in the face of death, finds a way to give, to smile, to lend a hand.
In the fall of 2016, after the unthinkable rise of white supremacy to the White House, one of our next door neighbors came over just to introduce himself, to say hello and to offer his support as our neighbor.
In the days after the inauguration, we received phone calls from strangers who simply wanted to call a Jewish organization and let us know that not everyone agrees with the hate speech and hate crimes directed against us, which increased 86% in 2017.
Last Wednesday evening, a member of the Council for American Islamic Relations knocked on our door with a beautiful orchid as a gesture of support in the aftermath of an attack on two Jews this past Monday in Brooklyn.
This is holiness in the best sense: the act that says we hold ourselves apart from this evil. This is the only holiness that Jewish tradition knows. May we all carry these examples in our own hearts, be comforted by them, and from them be inspired to believe in that which compelled our neighbors to act to reach out to us – and may we never cease to believe in the holiness of reaching back.