Kedoshim: Community and Humanity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achre Mot/Kedoshim

It’s a beautiful and sunny Friday morning, so perhaps it’s appropriate
to look at a law pertaining to green and growing things in this week’s
Torah portion. We’re in a double parsha, Achre Mot-Kedoshim, both of
which have lots of different laws (some of which are beautiful, and
some of which require some interpretive struggle) pertaining to family
life, agriculture, sexuality, ethics, and ritual. One of my favorite
mitzvot- also mentioned in next week’s Torah portion is the mitzvah
called “peah,” or “corners,” meaning the commandment to leave a corner
of one’s fields unharvested so the poor can come and collect a bit of
food:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the
way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your
harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen
fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the
stranger: I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:9-10)

There is so much ethical teaching in these few verses; I’ve written
about Peah before, and there are many wonderful commentaries about the
different aspects of the mitzvah. This week, I just want to point out
two words, in verse 9: “the poor and the stranger.” In Hebrew, the
word used for the poor person is “oni,” which you may remember from
Pesach a few weeks ago: matzah is called “lechem oni,” or “bread of
poverty, poor person’s bread.” The word for “stranger” is “ger,” which
in modern usage means a convert to Judaism, but in Biblical Hebrew
means somebody who lives among you but is not of your tribe- perhaps
compared today to the “alien” or non-citizen who is a resident, but
doesn’t have full rights of citizenship.

The mitzvah is to leave the corners of our fields- that is, share our
material and other resources- with both the “ger” and the “oni,” which
Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1100’s), along with other commentaries, clearly
spells out as the “poor person” who is of the tribe of Israel, AND the
“ger” or non-Israelite who lived in Israelite areas. In other words,
our moral concern is both for members of the “family” of the people
Israel and for those who are not of our people. We are both a people,
with special concern for the poor, sick, and dispossessed of our
community, and we are human beings, sharing a common destiny with
every soul created in the Divine Image.

Perhaps it’s a paradox to say that our moral concerns must be both
particular and universal, but to me, what this and other verses point
to is the simple fact that no community can take care of the whole
world, just as no human being can take care of everybody else’s
family. We have ties with some people that are thicker than others,
and if every community organized itself such that their own poor and
needy were taken care of, there would be far fewer people who felt
helpless and alienated from sources of material and spiritual support.
As one of my teachers put it: “find your corner of the world, and make
it holy.”

On the other hand- there are always people who fall through the
cracks, and if we restricted our moral concern to those who are part
of our own community, we would lose the opportunity to recognize that
all people are made in the Divine Image, and thus compassion extended
universally is also a chance to find God in places where we might not
otherwise be. The Torah tells us to take care of the poor of our
people, but also tells us to take care of the stranger, because we
were strangers in Egypt, and we of all peoples know the experience of
needing compassion from those who are not exactly like us.

So what’s the answer? How do we focus our giving and social action?

You already know the answer, which is that there is no simple answer.
There are always needs than easily available resources; we must simply
give more, give wisely, and never lose sight of our ties of peoplehood
nor our shared humanity. We are linked to our people in history,
destiny, memory, spirituality, and communal interdepency, and this
makes our lives infinitely richer than they would be as solitary
individuals, cut off from our roots and our branches. Yet God is in
all souls, so Judaism directs our compassion and justice to all
people. We are part of a people, and we are part of humankind; both
are true, and both truths inform a Jewish moral vision.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- Before we get to our usual parsha related links, here’s a link to
a good story on CBS news about the new Chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school and graduate
school in New York. The article describes not only the new Chancellor
but also some of the history and challenges of the Conservative
Movement:

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/05/03/national/main1582236.shtml

Also, we haven’t looked at Ibn Ezra’s commentary much- here’s a biography:

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/IbnEzra.html
Finally, as usual, you can find the text of the parsha here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

and summaries and further commentary on the parshiot (double parsha) here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/
kedoshim_index.htm

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/aharemot_index.htm

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