This past weekend Karaite Jews throughout the world read the Torah portion of Chukat (Numbers 19:1–22:1), and this coming weekend, Rabbanite Jews will do the same. Each Shabbat, I give a talk at the Karaite Jews of America’s synagogue in Daly City. Because those talks are not the point of the blog, I’ve resisted posting them here.
But after this last weekend’s talk, some people urged me to post it online. So, I am making a one-time (I think) exception. Here you go:
This week’s Torah portion discusses a rather technical law – the law of purifying ourselves after coming into contact or proximity with the dead. The Torah tells us that the only way to cleanse ourselves of the impurity of the dead is the perform a ceremony involving the ashes of the red heifer. Because impurity is a serious issue in the Jewish community, people constantly look for red heifers in hopes that we can soon purify ourselves fully. And people search and search and search, but ritual purity still eludes us.
I do not discuss politics from the pulpit, but America had a very difficult week. Those of you who saw the videos on the news or online, saw death in plain sight. [1.] Death in Louisiana. Death in Minnesota. Death in Texas.
And here we are, a nation looking for answers. A nation hoping to purify ourselves from all the death. But we have no complete answers. We have no perfect solutions. We have no red heifer.
So, at times like this, we must search for guidance and wisdom from a higher place. I want to take a few moments to read some guidance from the Torah – the Torah Portion of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20), which deals with holiness. And I hope that it guides you as to how to approach these issues.
Guidance 1: Do not curse the deaf (Leviticus 19:14). Of course, this prohibition applies to people who literally cannot hear. But in this case, it is my opinion that it applies to the dead. It applies to Alton Sterling. It applies to Philando Castile. None of these men is here to explain what happened. And yet, people take to Facebook and have decided to paint the events surrounding their demise based on (as far as we know) unrelated events from the past. And of course, the prohibition against cursing the deaf also applies to the fallen officers in Dallas: Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson.
Guidance 2: In righteousness shall you judge thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:15). We all have our preconceived notions about what happened. That’s what makes us human. But the Torah warns us not to take the side of the poor or the mighty simply on account of their status.
In light of these, I want to remind people to use social media responsibly. Too often, the initial response is for someone thousands of miles away and mostly unaffected by the tragedies to fuel the internet fire. But remember, we are dealing with life and death issues. Instead of simply posting online, have a conversation or a series of conversations about the issues. Meet with people from all sides of the spectrum and have meaningful dialogue. After all, as the Prophet Amos said, “Can two people walk together, unless they know each other” (Amos 3:3)? [2.]
Guidance 3: Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). The internet makes us all witnesses to human tragedy every day and everywhere. So I ask you, what are you going to do about it? I am not saying you need to fly to Louisiana or Minnesota or Texas. But we must do something. And I promise you that “something” in this case means more than posting rhetoric online. We must work for a just society, as the Torah tells us: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). So please do something to better our society. Visit a food bank. Care for the needy and the sick. Look after the elderly in our community.
And here we are on Shabbat. A day of holiness. A day of rest. A day to help reset our minds and our bodies. It is not just that Shabbat is a day that separates one week from the next. It is not simply that Shabbat itself is holy.
We should take some of the holiness of Shabbat with us into the next week. And if perhaps, if we learn the lessons of the Torah and act justly and with compassion, we can each be a proverbial red heifer to help America purify and sanctify itself.
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[1.] For various reasons I chose note to watch any of the videos of the deaths or aftermaths of the deaths.
[2.] Amos 3:3 is usually translated as “Can two people walk together unless they have agreed?” Or “Can two people walk together unless they are agreed?”