This year we read this Torah portion right after we have heard that the Supreme Court of the United States is seriously considering overturning the established right of women to decide for themselves whether they should have an abortion. Should that happen, the results for the health of many women, as well as the health of our society, will be catastrophic. A gigantic step forward will have been reversed.
In Israel this reading follows right after the marking of Israel’s 74th Independence Day. The great miracle of the establishment of a sovereign Jewish polity was a giant step forward for the Jewish people and for humanity. But it is a matter of great concern that in too many ways we have not continued in the spirit of that giant step forward.
Why do we see a movement to go backwards and not forwards? In both contexts there is much to ponder and examine about our present situation and how we got here. The fundamental message of our Torah reading is germane to that examination.
Our portion opens with the commandment to strive to be holy – “q’doshim tih’yu!” (Lev. 19:2) And the Torah goes on to detail how we can go about becoming holy, multiplying both ritual and ethical rules for us to follow. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “Nahmanides, the great medieval sage, points out a profound lesson about the commandment to be holy. He asks why such a command is needed. Wouldn’t it suffice to simply obey all the other laws of the holy Torah? Wouldn’t holiness simply follow automatically? So he explains that merely insisting on following the law can still result in a person being a ‘naval birshut ha-Torah – a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah.’ No, something more is needed. It is necessary to strive to go beyond one’s self, beyond one’s entitlements and rights.” (Sparks, 2020)
In other words, insisting on a careful following of the law can lead one to becoming a scoundrel! – unless the reading is infused with an ingredient that can easily be ignored when parsing the text. A strict – “original”- reading of the law is inadequate without the striving for the intangible quality called holiness. And this quality is explained by the Torah’s examples as being a generosity of spirit directed toward others.
It now appears that the majority of justices on the Supreme Court have no such concept and no desire to approach the law in the spirit of holiness – so that they might love their fellows as they love themselves. (Lev. 19:18) They are convinced that they know what the words of the law must mean, but they are incapable of really understanding what the law is striving to achieve.
The Talmud says that one reason Jerusalem was destroyed was “because they judged according to the law of the Torah and did not seek out the spirit of the law.” (BTBava Metzi`a 30b) The great late-19th century teacher, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, explains that this Talmudic statement about the “righteous” people of the Second Temple era criticizes them for not allowing those with whom they disagreed – even idol-worshippers – to live their lives without interference: “They were righteous and saintly and devoted to studying Torah, but they were not honest in their dealings with the world, since, out of spiteful hatred that they bore in their hearts for each other, they did not trust those whom they saw were acting against their views, and saw them as heretics. But God is honest and cannot stand such righteous people! Rather they must behave honestly with the whole world, and not be devious – even in order to serve Heaven – for this causes the destruction of Creation and destruction of society.”
Rabbi Berlin’s words are an uncanny analysis of our present plague of pseudo-righteousness in which the law is used as a weapon against justice rather than as a tool to spread justice.
Why do we currently see a turn backwards, away from true holiness? It seems that solicitude of holiness requires vulnerability. To allow others to live in ways that differ from one’s own values requires a faith and trust in people and in God that too many people find impossible to adopt. But, the Talmud warns, their cruel efforts to impose their rule over others – in the name of the law – will not result in saving society, but, rather, can lead to its very destruction.
There is an alternative – to strive to be generous and mindful of the needs of others – to strive to be holy.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.