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 Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim: True Judgement

A Jewish congregation is formally known as a kehillah kedoshah, a “holy community.” Such a community lives up to its name when all of us within it find ourselves off balance.
That seems a strange statement at first glance. Yet it is true: as the Israelites begin to define their lives at the foot of Mt Sinai as a covenanted community, and as we continue that process in every place where Jews come together, the mystics teach that we are called upon to give way to Something that pulls at us, unbalancing us off our center, and toward each other.
It’s striking that while every creature and every thing seems to seek stasis and balance, we are taught that judgment is true only if the stasis we seek is constantly tested and retested. A well-known Talmudic image of justice, citing the Tanakh (Amos 7.8), is the plumb line: a weighted string that demonstrates a clear true line as long as it hangs freely. The line is knocked off its center, even as are we, by that which gets in the way – all the little details of life that make it so complicated.
We live in anxious times, and out of our own sense of embattled insecurity can be quick to accuse each other of causing pain. How can we hope to see clearly if the plumb line of our convictions is true? On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Shabbat of Judgements, this is an urgent question.
 A famous teaching offers these requirements for true judging and judgements:
1. A true decision stands on its own merits against the will of the disputants
2. Good judges cause the Torah to be beloved
3. Four things bring clemency from the Heavenly tribunal: tzedakah, prayer, change of conduct, and change of reputation
4. Stubborn refusal to repent causes disease
(Sefer haMiddot, “The Book of Ethics”, p. 47-54)
We can clearly see from these four aspects of true judgement that justice is not a matter of simple demonstrable right and wrong. All these things can push the plumb line off from clear truth: emotional attachment to one side manipulating a dispute; the effect of judges who are not able to thoughtfully balance context and history; bad behavior on anybody’s part; and the desire to avoid blame at all costs.
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, think about who you blame, and then look for the plumb line of your connection to the kehillah kedoshah, the sacred community, that helps hold us all up. Does it hang true, or are you off-balance, too much hunkered down in yourself and how you are right, pulling that line toward you and away from another? The Jewish plumb line can never hang true until each of us is equally off-balance, leaning as much toward each other as toward our own center. It’s not comfortable, but it is, in the end, the only safe place.
May we be Judged in merit always,
Shabbat shalom