Shabbat Emor, May 1, 2021
Triennial Reading, Leviticus Chapter 22, verse 17 though Chapter 23, verse 22.
We find a momentous passage at the end of this week’s Torah portion. It is a reiteration of law first set forth in Mishpatim: Shever Tachat Shever, Ayin Tachat Ayin, Shane Tachat Shane, a break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Or was it first set forth somewhere else?
When Hammurabi’s Code was re-discovered in the early twentieth century, many scholars noted the resemblance to Mosaic law. After all, it predated Moshe by at least 400 years! Many of the stories of Breishit conform to references in Hammurabi’s code. And there are no less than 24 instances of resemblance between the two codes-in regard to the laws of kidnapping, burglary and assault. The most obvious parallel, though, is Lex Talionis, break for break, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. This seems to support the supposition that the Torah relies on the Code for its legal underpinnings.
Many people, however, challenge this conclusion. They say that the common points can be attributed to the shared geography of the two civilizations and to common human experience which is much the same everywhere.
The best proof of the independence of Torah law from Babylonian code is this passage we read today, the law of taliation. Hammurabi’s law understands this concept as a cold, literal maxim. If a man causes the tooth of a man who is his equal to fall out, one shall make his tooth to fall out. If a house builder causes the death of the owner by poor construction, he is killed, but if he causes the death of the child of the owner, he is not killed, but his child is.
In contrast, the Torah’s mitzvah is interpreted as a call for monetary compensation in the case of bodily harm to a person. This is begun even before the Rabbinic period as we can see from a sentence in Numbers, “You shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer that is guilty of death.” This makes it clear that other, lesser offenses would yield to money compensation. There is no instance in recorded Jewish history of the literal interpretation being implemented.
Torah law also is a principle applied to all in society. John Michaelis, a dean of modern Torah exegesis, states that this law is appropriate only for free people because the poorest inhabitant has the same rights as his most aristocratic assailant. It deems the tooth of the poorest peasant as valuable as that of the nobleman, even more so perhaps, because the peasant must bite crust, while the nobleman eats cake.
The idea of inflicting punishment on children for the acts of their parents is alien to Torah law. This is illustrated in a section dealing with an ox that gores others. The passage concludes, “Whether it has gored a son or a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done to him.” Later, the Torah states in even clearer language. The father shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin,”
Hammurabi’s Code, therefore, can be seen as a precursor to Torah law. It deals with the same societal problems of crime and punishment, but in markedly different ways.
The Torah places great emphasis on Midah K’Neged Midah, measure for measure. Abraham is a party to a lasting covenant of kindness from God because of his own deep reservoir of kindness. Joseph treats his brothers harshly in Egypt to awaken them to their treatment of him in Canaan. But the Torah also prohibits revenge, which was clearly in Joseph’s power had he chosen that course. We are bound to answer goodness with goodness and respond to crimes with just and appropriate punishment. This is what sets Judaism apart from the Babylonians, and what makes it a pioneering philosophy for all moral societies.
This week, we have the privilege of reading two Parshiyot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The theme of the second Parsha, Kedoshim, as its name suggests, is holiness. Modern Jews all too often associate the concept of holiness with a realm far removed from daily life. Rabbi Joseph Hertz writes in his commentary, “Holiness is thus not so much an abstract or a mystic idea as it is a regulative principle in the everyday lives of men and women…Holiness is thus attained…by the spirit in which we fulfill the obligations of life in their simplest and commonest detail…”
Afew questions to consider:
1. According to the opening verse in Parshat Kedoshim, the Jew strives to be holy in order to be more like God. How is it possible for a human being to be like God? What is it about God that makes God holy and what is it about the human being, according to this Parshah, that makes a human being holy?
2. One of the earliest systems of social welfare is to be found in Parshat Kedoshim. In Chapter 19, Verses 9-10, we are commanded to leave the corners of the fields as well as any forgotten fruit for the poor. What does the Torah accomplish by allowing the needy person to work in the field in order to receive his daily food? Would such a system be practical today? How could the law of the corners be applied in our society?
3. It is interesting to note that Chapter 19, Verse 13 makes an association between three different laws-oppression, robbery, and delay in the payment of salary to laborers. What is the connection between these three prohibitions? Why were they all included in one verse? Note that Maimonides defines robbery as, “He that takes property of a man by violence, and oppression as involving something which reaches a person without the owner’s consent. When the owner claims it back the other withholds the property by force…”.
4. Chapter 19, Verse 14, “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind’ is given a broad range of interpretations in the Talmud and in later Jewish literature. Almost all Jewish scholars understood that the expression “the blind” is not to be interpreted literally. A person can be “blind” if he or she is ignorant of a particular situation. To what situations in your daily life can you apply this ruling? In what ways does the modern advertising industry sometimes place a “stumbling block before the blind?
5. The Torah commands us, “Thou shalt not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people”. (Chapter 19, Verse 8). There are times, however, when it is only natural for a person to be nary and even hold a grudge against another person. The Talmud claims that in monetary matters when a person has a moral right but no legal right to collect fees owed to him by another individual, he or she can only complain (have a grudge). Are there situations in which a person is justified in holding a grudge? Why or why not? Why is this law applied only to fellow Jews and not to all human relations?
“YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF, I AM THE LORD” (Leviticus 19:18)
Our Parshiyot this week, Tazria-Metzorah, exhaustively relate the details surrounding the outbreak of skin disorders in the camp of B’Nai Yisrael. The rabbis, based on an incident later in the Torah concerning Miriam, determined that one reason for a person to be stricken with metzorah is that they engaged in Lashon HaRah (literally “bad speech”), spreading rumors about others, speaking ill of them, casting aspersions upon them.
The Chofetz Chaim, a giant of the late 19th century, made a life’s work of investigating the reasons for Lashon HaRah in an attempt to eradicate it. He arrived at seven causes for this destructive behavior. He even created a mnemonic to remember them all. He called it Kol Gehinom, translated as All Hell. Let’s briefly look at the seven of the causes of cruel speech:
1. Ka’as-anger. If we let anger control us, Lashon HaRah is sure to follow.
2. Laitzonus-scorn. If we treat serious matters lightly
3. Ga’avoah-haughtiness. If we consider ourselves better than others.
4. Hefker-abandonment. If we think it’s impossible to remain careful about speech.
5. Yaiush-despair. If we give up the goal of remaining positive about situations and people.
6. Nirganus-negativity. If we consider the world and its events as stacked against us.
7. Omer mutar-ignorance. If we believe that we are allowed to say what we want because of ignorance.
If we can see ourselves in these pitfalls, and who can't?, perhaps we can realize the impact of our speech on others, the world and ourselves. In doing so, we can guard against the behavior of Lashon HaRah.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
Triennial Reading, Leviticus, Chapter Chapter 10, verse 12 through Chapter 11, verse 32.
Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aharon, are executed by God because of their offering a non-prescribed ritual in the new Mishkan. It is unclear from the text as to what sin they actually committed. One of the suggested reasons for their death was the sin of entering the Mikdash after having consumed an intoxicating beverage. This would seemingly be unfair because the directive against entering under the influence is written in the Torah AFTER their deaths. The Midrash seems to imply that it was expected of them to know that proper honor and respect to the Mikdash would prohibit their entering after imbibing. This brings up the question of whether a person should be held responsible for an act if they were not warned ahead of time. In judicial proceedings of the Sanhedrin there is a requirement to warn perpetrators of a crime of their sinful intentions before it is possible to execute them. Why is this not prescribed in Nadav and Avihu’s defense? When Cain killed Abel, was there a law already given to prohibit the act of murder? According to one Talmudic version, the seven Noahide laws were actually given to Adam and Eve and hence Cain should have known about it. But a simple reading of the text would indicate that he did not know because it was not spelled out clearly that such a prohibition existed.
Another interpretation that our Sages offer is that they were arrogant. There were many women who were unmarried and they clung to their bachelorhood through years of maturity. According to the Midrash, they looked around them and saw that Moshe was the king and he was married. Their uncle Nachshon was the prince of the tribe of Yehudah. Their father was the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. They realized that they came from probably the most Yichus, the highest degree of religious and national pedigree that anybody possessed in the entire nation. They could have surmised, says the Midrash, “what woman is worthy of this family and for us as heirs to religious and national leadership.” The Midrash leaves this as a suggestion and invites us to discuss that challenge.
Another Midrash that discusses Nadav and Avihu tells us that the fire that consumed the brothers was actually the Angel of Death, which comes to teach us that the death of these two Kohanic princes was a source of pain to Hashem. These sons of Aharon were beloved and completely righteous, says the Midrash. In such a situation the Midrash is really telling us that their death might be beyond the scope of our ability to properly understand why Hashem felt it was necessary for them to die. In the post-Holocaust era this Midrash takes on special meaning because, more than 75 years later, we still cannot comprehend the divine judgment that allowed six million Jewish people to die in the Holocaust. The Shoa is commemorated each year, with Yom HaShoah falling during this week of Parshat Shemini.
The laws of Kashrut are listed in Shemini. AS quiz: Which of the following animals are kosher? (a) Buffalo. (b) Giraffe. (c) Antelope. (d) Peacock. (e) Honey from the bee. (f) Human Milk. (g) Llama. (h) Seagull. (i) Sturgeon.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman