Posted by: Subway Conductor | May 2, 2020

Drasha for May 2, 2020

A Derasha for Parashat Acharei Mot- Kedoshim
This week’s Torah portion is where we find the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What is surprising is that this fundamental teaching o the Torah is found in the middle of a book – the Book of Leviticus – that is mainly devoted to the details of the sacrificial system that was performed by the Kohens ( a subgroup of the Levites) in the Temple in Jerusalem. During the biblical period, the sacrifices and offerings along with the other rituals performed in the Temple were at the very center of Judaism. And yet, in the heart of this book devoted to the Temple rituals, we find the loftiest ethical statement of the entire Torah.

There has been a debate within different Jewish circles about which is more important – ritual or ethics. For many, the observance of the minute laws of the Sabbath, the punctilious adherence to the dietary laws, and the regular performance of a wide range of rituals are the essential elements of Jewish life. On the other hand, many Jewish thinkers emphasize that ethical and moral demands are what are essential in Judaism and rituals are secondary and even optional. There are many statements in the prophetic books of the Bible that lend support to this second view. The prophets, such as Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, insist that justice and righteousness are what the Lord requires of us. There is a constant refrain about our obligation to the “widow, the orphan, the downtrodden, and the stranger.” We are also familiar with the oft quoted statement of Hillel who, when asked to summarize the Torah “while standing on one foot” said, “what is hateful to you, do not do to others, this is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, go learn it.”

So, which is it – ritual or ethics.?

Our Torah portion gives us some insight into this apparent dichotomy. If we look at Leviticus 19:18 where we find the famous “love your neighbor” and then look at what immediately follows in verse19, we see a most striking juxtaposition. Verse 19 contains the commandment against forbidden mixtures. Shatnez, not wearing wool and flax in the same garment, is the paradigmatic example of a chok – a biblical command that does not seem to have a rational basis. Laws that we observe only because they are written in the Torah. Why would the Torah put these two statements – a lofty ethical principle and a chok right next to one another? I believe that the answer is that the Torah is a unified system that does not make a division between the ethical and the ritual. One can not say, this is important and this is secondary. They are both important.

The rituals of Judaism are what have preserved a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation. If on Passover, we sat around the table and discussed the importance of freedom and the ethical implications of the story of the Exodus, it would perhaps capture some of what the holiday is about. But, Passover would have ceased to exist many centuries ago. Eating matzah, maror, and charoset, reading the Haggadah, and drinking four cups of wine are rituals that have been passed from generation to generation. We should think about what the underlying meaning of these rituals is. We should focus on the meaning of slavery and redemption that is imbodied in these rituals. As long as we continue to observe these rituals, we have the ability to search for their deeper meaning. But, without the rituals, we would have no basis for the discussion and we would soon forget to do anything on Passover evening.

By putting the two verses together – “Love your neighbor as yourself” and the prohibited mixtures – the Torah teaches us that ritual and ethics go hand in hand.

We should also remember the second half of Hillel’s famous statement, “the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” He did not say, the rest is unimportant or optional.

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