Monday, April 28, 2014

Dvar Torah for Parshat Kedoshim

This past week, I had the honor of giving the sermon, or dvar torah, at my synagogue, Temple Menorah, in Miami Beach, Florida.  This sermon touches on aspects of Parshat Kedoshim, Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus.  The speech was delivered a bit different from this text, but this still captures the idea.  I hope you will enjoy it.

Parshat Kedoshim
April 26, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Good Shabbas everyone! It is my great honor to be giving the dvar torah today while Rabbi Pearlson helps lead members of our community on the March of the Living.

Sometimes we read parshas that are difficult to relate to: parshas filled with long, obscure passages about the minutiae of the sacrifice services in the Beit HaMikdash.  This is not one of those parshas!  Kedoshim is filled to the brim with relevant, meaningful content about how a regular member of Am Yisrael can live a “kadosh,” holy life.  We are told to revere our parents, keep Shabbat, not turn to idols, take care of the poor, and to not steal, lie, or profane God's name. There are warnings about defrauding people, abusing those with disabilities, and treating strangers badly, and we are instructed to pay workers immediately after their work is completed.  We are instructed not to be deceitful, vengeful, or bear a grudge. There are many laws about sexual relations included here as well. But perhaps the most famous rule in this part of Leviticus is "Love your fellow [sometimes translated as "neighbor"] as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). These are just a sampling of the commandments included following the words "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy."

All of these commandments are supposed to make us holy.  But what does “holy” actually mean?  In Hebrew, “Kadosh” literally means “separate.”  By following these commandments, we become a nation that is “separate” from the other nations of the world that may not act as God would like us to act.

One of the most important things that makes us separate – kadosh – holy – is our concern for the poor and for justice.  For example, this parsha instructs that “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.  And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you collect the fallen individual grapes of your vineyard.  You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.  I am the Lord, your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10).

As most of us are not farmers here, this pasuk may require a bit of an explanation.  In ancient times, before modern agricultural tools, people would have to go into the field and reap the wheat by hand.  Inevitably, some of the stalks would fall on the ground.  Similarly, when picking bunches of grapes from a vineyard, some of the individual grapes would fall off the bunch.  The Torah’s attitude is that we are not to pick up the extra, but instead are to leave this for “the stranger and the poor.”  We are also to leave the corners of the field unharvested, so that the poor may go onto our land and harvest the extra. 

Think about this for a moment.  The only way to make this system work is to leave your field open and unfenced.  It is a violation of God’s mitzvot to fence off your agricultural land and make it inaccessible to the poor who would come and take the extra gleanings. 

This pasuk is about more than just how to harvest a field.  It is giving us an attitude about how to consider our plenty.  We cannot be so greedy, that we are maximizing every bit of value at the expense of the poor.  Instead, we are supposed to be generous, to understand that those of us who have been blessed with abundance must always consider how to support the least among us. And we must be open-hearted, opening our fields so that the stranger and the poor may enter.  They must be real and visible to us, not just an abstraction. 

How important is this mitzvah? Consider this story from the Tanach.  Many of you are familiar with the story of Ruth.  Ruth is our most famous convert.  According to the Tanakh, King David is a direct descendant of Ruth.  Because the Moshiakh is said to be a descendant of King David, we believe that the person who will bring our ultimate redemption is the son of Ruth.  Well, you might wonder, who was Ruth’s husband – and how did they meet? 

Ruth was a Moabite woman who decided to adopt Judaism, and moved to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, choosing to become a member of B’Nai Yisrael instead of going back to her mother’s home.  When Ruth and Naomi reached Bethlehem, it was the time of barley harvest.  Ruth decided to go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain – grain that was leftover because of Jewish observance of Kedoshim.  And it is here, in the fields, picking up the pieces of fallen barley, that Ruth meets Boaz, the owner of the field.  Ruth eventually marries Boaz, and together they have a son, Obed, who was the father of Jesse, the father of King David.   

This story has an important lesson.  If Boaz had not followed the mitzvah of leaving the gleanings of the harvest for the poor and the stranger, he and Ruth would never have met and eventually married, and King David would never have been born.  Thus, it is from Boaz’s merit of following the mitzvot of Kedoshim that we may one day receive the ultimate redemption of the Moshiakh.

This should impart an important lesson for our everyday lives.  We must ask ourselves: are we being too greedy and overzealous in our business dealings? Are we so obsessed with picking up every metaphorical “last stalk of barley” that we are forgetting how much it would mean to someone far less fortunate than us to grasp those stalks?  How can we create a life that is more open to the poor and the stranger?  These are the questions that Kedoshim provokes us to answer.

There is one more part of today’s parshah that I want to discuss with you today that connects to our story of Ruth.  In chapter 19, verse 15, God instructs: “You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness.” 

Rashi helps explain this verse accordingly.  First, Rashi explains that the verse, “you shall commit no injustice in judgment,” teaches us that a judge who corrupts the law is called unjust, hated and disgusting, fit to be destroyed, and an abomination.  Next, Rashi explains the verse: “You shall not favor a poor person.”  Rashi explains that this means that you shall not say, “this man is poor, and the rich man is obligated to provide him with sustenance; therefore, I will acquit him in judgment, and he will thus be sustained respectably.”  At the same time, the verse says we may not “show respect to the great.”  Rashi explains that this means that you shall not say, “this man is rich, the son of prominent people; how can I embarrass him and behold his shame? That would surely be a punishable act!”  Rather than show favor or respect in either direction, we are to “Judge your fellow with righteousness.”  Rashi states that this is to be given its plain meaning – though another explanation is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and not to rush to judgment.

Putting this all together, the Torah is making a profound statement about what our attitude should be toward our fellow man.  We are not supposed to look at the poor man with pity, or to the rich man with awe.  Instead, we are to look at each person as a PERSON, a fellow human being, who must be judged not by his material position but based on his DEEDS.  Only by approaching the world in this way can we truly judge “righteously.”  To do otherwise is to act in a way that God abhors.

Again, I am reminded of the book of Ruth.  When Boaz first meets Ruth, think of the disparity in position.  Boaz is a rich man, the owner of plentiful fields of grain.  Ruth, on the other hand, has nothing.  She is a stranger from a foreign land, a convert, a widow, toiling in the Boaz’s fields to sustain herself and her mother-in-law.  Yet when Boaz meets her for the first time, he tells her to stop grazing in the field, and to instead relax with his maidens, and to drink from his vessels, and eat his bread.  She bows and asks “Why have I pleased you that you should take cognizance of me, seeing that I am a foreigner?”  Boaz replied, “It has been told to me all that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death, and you left your father and your mother and your native land, and you went to a people that you did not know before.  May the Lord reward your deeds, and may your reward be full from the Lord of God Israel, under Whose wings you have come to take shelter.” 

When Boaz looked at Ruth, he did not just see a piteous poor stranger.  He saw a righteous woman, a woman who had sacrificed the comfortable life to follow God’s path.  Boaz judged Ruth with righteousness.  He did not favor her because she was poor; he favored her because of her DEEDS. 

Again, this is a story and a lesson that is just as meaningful today as it was 3500 years ago.  I am sure that every one of us has been guilty, at one time or another, or according special favor for a person because they were a “great person,” because they were famous, or rich, or powerful.  We need to remind ourselves that when chosing our friends, our business partners, even our spouse, we must look past the material and judge each person for who they really are, based on their actions. 

On this Shabbat, let us all think about ways we can make our lives a bit more holy, by introducing the principles of Kedoshim into our lives.  Truly then, when we learn to judge our fellow with righteousness and love, and to care for the least amongst us, we will be a holy nation, a nation that will merit the ultimate redemption.  Amen!

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