Parashah Ponderings

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Emma Lazarus, 1883

Parashat Behar 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת בְּהַר
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1-26:2 

If any of us ever wondered if there’s truth to the adage “None of us are free until all of us are free,” now we know. An 18-year old white supremacist opened fire at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, last Saturday, killing 10 and wounding 3. Of the 13 victims, 11 were Black. The man drove 200 miles from his home to reach his target. He arrived heavily armed and wearing tactical gear, including a helmet outfitted with a camera to livestream his barbaric attack. This hate crime has rocked the community in which it took place, but its reverberations are felt everywhere, including in America’s Jewish community. Not only do our hearts go out to the families of the victims and their community, but more than that, we Jews share in their grief. We are no less free to ignore the hate that revealed itself in Buffalo than the people there who are suffering the most.

In “What you need to know about the antisemitic ideology behind the Buffalo shooting,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes:

An online manifesto attributed to (the perpetrator) explains that the attack was spurred by the theory that a tide of immigrants is crowding out white populations in western countries. The manifesto also says that Jews are the real problem but that “they can be dealt with in time….” 

“Are you an anti-semite? YES!!” the manifesto reads in one place. Later, the author answers the question, “Why attack immigrants when the Jews are the issue?” The answer reads, in part: “They can be dealt with in time.”

How can we read the words of this proud anti-Semite, who just shot eleven Black people, and not recall Martin Niemoller’s lament, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist….” We know how it ends. Niemoller could distance himself from Hitler’s hate for only so long before he, too, was incarcerated in a concentration camp. He discovered just how intertwined his own fate was with the Jews and others whom Hitler sought to exterminate. In our own day, white supremacists and believers in the bogus “replacement theory” will target anyone they deem as “other” and they’ll do it “in time.”

There is no “us” or “them” when it comes to hate. The biggest mistake we can make is to only join forces with other minority communities in response to tragedies like the one in Buffalo or the one in Pittsburgh or the one in Christchurch, New Zealand or the one in…. We must always strive to be in relation with other minority communities, with other faith communities, and with all who are committed to working toward a more just and peaceful world. We won’t always agree with people’s politics or worldviews, but unless people of good will are prepared to work with those with whom they have serious differences, we’ll never create the just, peaceful world that all people of good agree we want to live in.

While the adage with which I opened my remarks has been attributed to Maya Angelou, among others, it was the great Jewish poet Emma Lazarus who wrote in 1883, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” At the time, Lazarus was addressing the assimilated, comfortable Jews of America who were turning their backs on Jews who were being beaten, raped, and murdered in the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Let us close our eyes, though, and imagine Emma Lazarus standing before us today addressing the current scourge of hate plaguing our nation. Let us hear her talking about the interconnectedness of all peoples when she says, “We ignore and repudiate our unhappy brethren as having no part or share in their misfortunes — until the cup of anguish is held also to our own lips.”

This week, we read in the Torah about God’s call for a jubilee (yovel, in Hebrew) – a reboot of the social order and a release from indebtedness and servitude. The yovel reminded our ancestors that the lives of all Israelites were intertwined, that all of Israel was responsible for one another. The same must be said of all humankind: all lives are intertwined, we are all responsible for one another. In this spirit, I ask each of us to explore ways in which we can build relationships with people who are different from ourselves – whether that’s joining them in their social justice efforts or inviting them to support our work for social justice. There’s more than one right way to increase love in the world. Find one that works for you.

May we live to see the day when hatred ceases, guns go quiet, and all of us are truly free.

Parashah Ponderings

When It Comes to Speech, Mind Your Business

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai / פרשת בהר־בחקתי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34 

:וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת־עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם
“You shall not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 25:17

This week’s Torah reading provides the basis for much of Judaism’s teachings on the ethics of business. For example, when selling property shortly before the jubilee year, when all property outside walled cities was to be returned to its original owner, the seller is directed to pro-rate the sale price of the property according to the number of years remaining until the land remits back to its original owner. In this discussion, the Torah exhorts the seller: “You shall not wrong one another.” In other words, the seller should hold himself or herself to the highest ethical ideals and refrain from cheating, misleading or harming the buyer in any way.

The phrase “You shall not wrong one another” appears twice in chapter 25, once in verse 14 and once in verse 17. The second appearance includes the words “…but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” Modern scholars point out that the repetition serves to emphasize the importance of ethical business practices.[1] The additional words in verse 17 demonstrate that even if the seller can surely get away with an ethical violation, he or she must remember that, though no human may become aware of his ill intentions, God is all-knowing (at least, in the biblical mindset) and will ultimately bring the wrongdoer to justice.

Traditional commentators read more into the repetition of “You shall not wrong one another” than mere emphasis, however. For them, since the Torah uses its words economically, the second appearance must mean something different from the first. Thus, they explain that the first appearance deals with the business transaction itself, and the second deals with the ethics of speech.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, writes:

By contrast to verse 14, here the phrase refers to wrongdoing one another by speech. You must not belittle anyone, nor deliberately give him advice that would work out to your benefit rather than his. Should you be tempted to say, “Who could know for sure that I deliberately intended to harm him” the verse adds: “Fear your God.” The One who knows thoughts will know. Any time the text mentions something that only the person who is thinking it could know for sure, it adds, “fear your God.”[2]

I was once on a panel for jury selection in a case involving a defendant accused of reneging on a business deal. While we didn’t learn the particulars of the case, one of the attorneys hinted at its nature when he asked us prospective jurors: “Do you consider a verbal agreement to be a binding contract? Raise your hand if ‘Yes.'” Had the biblical authors been in the room, they would have raised their hands at that moment; they believed a person’s word was sacred, that a promise became real as soon as it passed the lips. You might be able to fool people through clever use of words, but you can’t fool God.

Sadly, unscrupulous business people frequently deceive consumers with slick language. Years ago, I fell prey to verbal bait and switch tactics twice. In neither case did I see it coming. I trusted that what I was told up front was the truth. I was wrong. (“Buyer beware” is also an important Jewish value, by the way.) Interestingly, in each of these cases the salesperson was no longer working at his or her place of business six months later. Apparently, management caught on to them and meted out punishment. I wonder if they were acting as agents of the Divine in these cases or, perhaps, they beat God to the punch.

One lesson to learn from the traditional commentators is that you can’t separate out the mechanics of business from the words used to conduct business. Whether it be advertising through the media or a face-to-face sales pitch, the words used to sell a product and close a deal really do matter. One should seek to be honest in all aspects of business, from how one exchanges money and writes up a contract to how one speaks to the customer in person or through advertising.

Another lesson to learn from this discussion is that there’s more to the ethics of speech in Judaism than the prohibition against lashon hara, that is, “evil speech” such as gossip and slander, which are spoken about others. What you say to people in their presence and how you make them feel are also guided by Jewish values. This last point is illustrated beautifully by the following midrash:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel told Tavi, his servant, “Go to the marketplace and buy some food that is good.” Tavi went to the marketplace and returned with tongue. Afterward, Rabbi Shimon said to Tavi, “Go to the marketplace and buy some food this is bad.” Tavi again went to the marketplace and returned with tongue.

“What is this?” asked Rabbi Shimon. “When I told you to buy food that is good, you bought tongue, and when I told you to buy food that is bad, you also bought tongue.”

Tavi replied, “From a tongue can come good and from a tongue can come bad. When a tongue is good, there is nothing better. But when a tongue is bad there is nothing worse.” (Vayikra Rabbah 33:1)[3]

I’ve never liked tongue, and why Rabbi Shimon would instruct his servant to purchase bad meat is beyond my comprehension. These misgivings aside, the moral of the story is clear: we can use our tongues to benefit the world, and we can use our tongues to injure the world. Whether in a shop or an office, in school or at home, may we strive to control our tongues so as not to wrong one another.

[1] Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 173.

[2] Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Leviticus, (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), p. 208.

[3] Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, (Brooklyn, NY: Aish HaTorah Publications, 1977), pp. 326-327.