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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Aharei – kedoshim

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT
(5776)
VICARIOUS ATONEMENT
“Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21)
Many years ago, when I was a freshman in college, a suitemate invited me to a social event on another campus. He said it would be a chance to meet girls. It turned out to be a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting. I listened as various students bore witness to their Christian faith. Although I was too strong a Jew to accept what they were saying, I was intrigued by their thinking.
Their message was very simple. God is perfect and humans are sinners. Imperfect sinners cannot relate to a perfect God. Therefore we humans need something or someone to take away our sins. Of course, that someone had to be without sin. Through Jesus our sins can be cleansed and we can once again relate to God. It was a simple message and as I studied Judaism further, I had to ask where this idea came from. The answer is that it came from this week’s Torah reading.
This week we read the laws of Yom Kippur. At the heart of the ritual, the High Priest makes a confession for the sins of the people, holding his hands on a goat chosen for that moment. The goat would carry the sins of the people off into the wilderness; the Torah uses the term Azazel. When modern Israelis want to put a curse on someone, they will actually say “Go to Azazel.” The idea of a goat carrying off the sins of the people is known as vicarious atonement. We actually reenact this ritual as part of our afternoon Yom Kippur service, with the cantor playing the role of the High Priest. By the way, the English word “scapegoat” comes from this Biblical section.
What happens today when there is no longer a Holy Temple and the priests no longer bring sacrifices? Memories of such vicarious atonement are still part of Jewish life. For example, we go down to a body of water Rosh Hashanah afternoon in a ritual called tashlich, tossing bread into the water to symbolize our sins. Many in the Orthodox community do a ritual called kapores on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, swinging a rooster or chicken over their heads and transferring their sins to the bird. But Judaism has understood that we no longer need vicarious atonement to take away our sins. We can remove our sins through acts of teshuvah (repentance), turning aside from our past and learning to change our ways. In fact, that is the number one theme of the High Holidays.
Nonetheless, many Jewish college students are vulnerable to Christian missionaries who love to quote the Hebrew Bible as proof that Christianity is right, and that vicarious atonement is necessary to become at one with God. One of their favorite passages is Isaiah chapter 53, which speaks of a suffering servant. The servant is scorned by people who look away from his face, as he was smitten with disease. But the Bible sees the suffering servant as carrying out a vicarious atonement. “But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was bruised because of our iniquities; his sufferings were that we might have peace; and by his injury we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) To religious Christians, the suffering servant is clearly Jesus, sent by God to die for humanity’s sins. Now that the Temple is no longer standing, Jesus became the scapegoat.
However, with due respect to my Christian friends, we Jews understand Isaiah’s suffering servant very differently. The servant is not an individual man. Rather it is the people Israel. An entire people bears the sins of the world. Jews have been the scapegoats throughout history. But it is the sins of the world that they must carry. I often compare the role of the Jewish people throughout history to that of the canary in the mine. The canary is brought into the mine to see if it is safe, and if the canary dies, the miners know that they will be next. Wherever the people Israel have been the victims, the rest of the world seems to follow.
Vicarious atonement is a powerful idea, developed in very different ways by Jews and Christians. Ultimately both deal with the questions, how can we purify the sins of the world.

PARSHAT KEDOSHIM
(5776)
WHY BE ETHICAL?
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Every profession has its ethical standards. To become a lawyer or accountant, a nurse or a doctor, one must pass an exam on professional ethics. One must also take continuing education classes in ethics. Even my rabbinic organization has an ethics committee (vaad hakavod – literally “honor commission.”) Rabbis have been removed from membership in the Rabbinical Assembly for a variety of ethical lapses.
I often dream about sitting with a group of lawyers or doctors or rabbis and discussing the fundamental question, why be ethical? Why must one follow these fundamental ethical rules? A lawyer could answer that if she does not follow them, she will be disbarred. But what if she can guarantee that she will not be caught? Is there a greater reason for being ethical than simply fear of punishment?
That brings me to this week’s portion, the great ethical chapter in Leviticus’s holiness code. At the heart of being holy is being ethical. One should honor parents and pay wages on time. One should not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind. One should not take vengeance nor hate one’s fellow. Perhaps most important is the Golden Rule. One should love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
This Golden Rule became fundamental to most religions including Judaism. During the early rabbinic period a non-Jew went up to the great sage Hillel and asked to convert, but only if Hillel could explain all of Judaism while standing on one foot. Hillel stood on one foot and responded, “What is hateful to you do not do onto others. The rest is commentary, go and learn.” (Shabbat 31a).
Religion seems to point to an answer. Why be ethical? Because God said so. God commanded us to be good and to obey the Golden Rule. Nonetheless, this is an extremely problematic answer. What about places in the Bible where God does not seem to command goodness? What about the command to kill witches? (Exodus 22:17) What about the command to take vengeance against the Midianites? (Numbers 31:17) To say that something is ethical because God says so seems strangely arbitrary. What about people who do not believe in God? Why should they be ethical?
Socrates already raised this problem long ago in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates asked whether something is good because God says it is good. (Socrates actually said “the gods said it is good;” the idea is the same.) Or does God say it is good because it is good. Is there some standard of right and wrong, goodness and evil in the universe that exists before God says anything? Is God held to some standard of goodness? Or as Abraham famously said, “Shouldn’t the judge of all the earth do justly.” (Genesis 18:25)
I believe there is a standard of right and wrong which exists without God. I believe that even God has to be held to that standard. But what is it? Many philosophers have tried to come up with such a standard. Perhaps the most famous attempt is that of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant tried to use reason to come up with a secular version of the Golden Rule. A person should always act in a way that they would want their actions to be a universal law. So for example, one should not steal because one wants to live in a world where people do not steal. One should keep one’s promises because one wants there to be a universal law that people keep promises. Kant called this the categorical imperative. It is one of the most fundamental ideas I ask my philosophy students to learn.
Nonetheless, there is a huge problem with Kant’s categorical imperative. Many people prefer to live in a world where the strong devour the weak, where the winner takes all, where “greed is good.” They thrive in an amoral world. Some even quote Darwin and “the survival of the fittest.” They prefer to return to the ethics of the Wild West, where the tough survive and the weak perish. I have met such people. If you say to them “be good, be just,” they respond “why?”
So we return to our question – why be ethical? I think there is only one answer. Humans are born with an inherent dignity, and we must act in a way that preserves the dignity of every other human being. I believe people must live their lives based on that presumption.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5775)
WHAT IS HOLINESS?
“You shall be holy for I the Lord God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
This week we come to the heart of Leviticus, which many believe to be the heart of the Torah. It is the call to the people Israel to be holy. This section of Torah contains many of the loftiest ethical statements in the entire Torah, including the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) But holiness is more than simply being ethical. The Hebrew root k-d-sh according to Rashi’s commentary means “separated,” “set apart,” “made special.” We are to set ourselves apart from the ordinary and the mundane. Or as I often explain, we are to rise above the animals within us.
There are numerous Hebrew words containing the three letter root k-d-sh and which refer to setting ourselves apart. They all are built on the word kadosh – “holy.” Let us look at five examples.
Every Friday night and every festival evening, as they sit down to eat dinner, Jews fill up a cup of wine and chant the Kiddush. The word means “sanctification.” It is one of the most important prayers we teach our religious school students. It is a declaration that the Sabbath or the festival is holy time, set apart and made special. In the animal world every day is like every other day. For slaves the drudgery took place seven days a week. Even in our modern world we speak of activity 24-7. By sanctifying one day a week and certain holy times during the year, we are making them different. As the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel so beautifully wrote, we are building “a sanctuary in time.”
The holiest place in the world to Jews is a wall standing in the heart of Jerusalem. It is the last remaining remnant of the holy Temple which once served as the center of worship for Jews. The Hebrew word for this great Temple is Mikdash, a holy place. In their daily prayers Jews say yebenai beit hamikdash bimhera beyamnu – “let the holy Temple be built speedily in our day.” Meanwhile Jews use the phrase mikdash meat “small Temple” for the synagogues they build throughout the world. If the Sabbath is holiness in time, the synagogue is holiness in space.
Jews also use the term holiness to refer to relationships. The Hebrew term for a wedding ceremony is Kedushin – literally “holinesses.” The rabbi who officiates at a Jewish wedding is known as the mesader kedushin – literally “bringing order to the wedding.” The job is to make sure that everything is done properly by Jewish law. In a wedding a man sets a woman apart from every other woman in the world as special. In our more egalitarian age, we can also say that a woman sets a man apart as special. Animals have sexual encounters, but only humans set each other apart in such a unique, holy relationship.
We have holy time, holy space, and holy relationships. We also have a holy God, set apart from the physical world. When Jews pray in synagogue, they include a prayer known as the Kedusha – literally “sanctification.” They rise up three times on their tiptoes and declare the words “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole world is filled with his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) In doing so they are recreating Isaiah’s vision of heaven, with God on a lofty throne while the angels call to one another that God is holy. The same phrase Sancta, Sancta, Sancta is part of the Latin Mass in the Catholic Church.
If God is holy by being separated from the world, we humans are also holy by being separated from the animal kingdom. We Jews say a special prayer known as Kaddish – again “sanctification” in memory of loved ones who have died. Saying kaddish is a fundamental Jewish ritual. Every now and again someone asks me if they can say kaddish for their beloved pet, their dog or their cat. I sympathize with their loss, but I tell them kaddish is for humans. Again we set apart humans from all other living creatures as holy.
Kiddush, Mikdash, Kiddushin, Kedusha, Kaddish – all from a root meaning “holy.” At the center of our world view is the search for holiness in every aspect of our lives.
PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – SHABBAT HAGADOL
(5774)
FOUR TYPES OF HOLINESS
“And there shall be no man in the Tent of Meeting when he goes in to make an atonement in the holy place, until he comes out, and have made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel.” (Leviticus 16:17)
Even as Passover approaches, we read this week about the laws of Yom Kippur. Perhaps that is meaningful because they are our two most observed festivals, even among Jews who keep few other traditions. The portion focuses on the rituals conducted on Yom Kippur by the High Priest in the ancient Temple. We no longer have a Temple nor a High Priest so these are distant memories. But these rituals are reenacted on Yom Kippur afternoon with the Cantor playing the role of High Priest.
At the center of this ritual is the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies, a chamber opened only to him, and only on this day. He performs three confessions, one for himself and his family, one for his fellow priests, and then a final for the entire community of Israel. The final confession is performed over the head of a goat, which is then sent off into the wilderness. Symbolically the goat carries away the sins of the community; from this ritual we get the word “scapegoat”. Perhaps most fascinating, only during these three confessions was the real name of God pronounced. Only the High Priest, only on this day, only in the Holy of Holies, was the sacred name pronounced. With the destruction of the Temple Jews avoid even trying to pronounce God’s holy name.
Today when we reenact this ritual Yom Kippur afternoon, the Cantor does not actually pronounce the name. But for each of the three confessions he lays flat on the floor, symbolizing the holiness of this moment. Unfortunately, on Yom Kippur I have a full house through yizkor, but by this point in the service more than half my worshippers have left. They are missing a moment of holiness.
One of my favorite passages in Jewish literature is from the Yiddish playwright S. Ansky in his play The Dybbuk. He speaks of the four types of holiness that come together at that moment. The priests are the holiest people, and the High Priest is the holiest of the priests. Hebrew is the holiest language and God’s name is the holiest word in Hebrew. The Sabbath is the holiest day and Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths. The land of Israel is the holiest land, Jerusalem is the holiest place in Israel, and the Holy of Holies is the holiest piece of land in Jerusalem. At one moment all four types of holiness come together. And if at that moment, the High Priest has one impure thought, he could destroy the entire world.
I love this passage and I have often quoted it in sermons. I think one of the reasons I love it is that we have lost that sense of holiness. In America there is no sacred and profane, only profane. We have no people who exemplify holiness. If we see a person in a stretch limousine with darkened windows and a police escort, it is probably not a holy person. It is more likely to be Madonna than the Dalai Lama. We have lost any sense that language should be holy. If we go to the movies, we are more likely to hear profanity than poetry.
There are not holy places in our community. Perhaps there are some historical places that evoke strong emotions – the Capital Building in Washington D.C. or the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. But many of these places have become tacky, surrounded by souvenir shops and food trucks. And we have lost any sense of holy days. Even Thanksgiving, the most holy day on the American calendar has been encroached by malls and commercial establishments opening far too early.
Sometimes I think that the only holy day that Americans celebrate with any degree of regularity is Superbowl Sunday. That does give me an idea. Bring the Dalai Lama to offer an opening invocation at the Superbowl. Perhaps that will give us a moment of holiness.
Passover starts Monday. It is more than a family meal. It is a true chance to bring a bit of holiness into our homes. May we embrace the moment.

PARSHAT KEDOSHIM
(5774)
WHY BE GOOD?
“Love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
We finally arrive at the heart of Leviticus, often known as the holiness code. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Much of this section deals with ethical behavior. Do not steal or deal deceitfully. Do not defraud your fellow. Pay workers on time. Do not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. Do not hate your fellow. Do not take vengeance. At then, at the heart of this section is the Golden Rule – love your fellow as yourself.
Ethics is at the center of the Torah’s vision. It seems like the term “ethics” comes up almost daily in the news. Politicians must follow certain ethical standards, and based on life here in south Florida, many have ignored these rules and ended up in jail. Of course, doctors and nurses, lawyers and accountants, all must pass professional exams in ethics, and must receive continuing education in ethics. As a rabbi and member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I am held to certain ethical standards of conduct by my professional organization.
These past three years I have been privileged to teach a course in ethics at Broward College for the philosophy department. The heart of the course goes beyond right and wrong behavior. It attempts to tackle the difficult question – why be good? Even if people know the right thing to do, why bother doing it? In fact, early in the class we discuss a story told by Plato in The Republic known as Gyges’s ring. The ring makes the wearer invisible. (Yes, Tolkien’s great trilogy The Lord of the Rings is based on this ancient story.) Gyges wears the ring, sneaks into the palace, murders the king, seduces the queen, and takes over the kingdom. The story tries to prove that if someone could get away with something they know is bad, they will.
Socrates disagrees. He says that “knowledge leads to virtue”; to know the right thing is to do the right thing. When I teach this section, I ask my students what they would do if they witnessed a bank robbery. A thief runs out of the bank and drops a huge sack of money. There are no hidden cameras and nobody is looking. Would they grab the money and run? Sadly, most say yes. But perhaps Judaism would agree. The Torah says that people are born with an evil inclination, “The devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” (Genesis 6:5)
Having said that, Judaism says people are also born with a good inclination. How do we develop the good inclination and control the evil inclination? That is a central question of Judaism. But what would philosophy say? Aristotle asks a very similar question in his virtue ethics – how do we train people to be good? And so we return to the philosophical question – why be good?
There is a deep discussion in philosophical history whether we can learn goodness from science. If we look into how nature works, can that teach us to be good? Long ago the philosopher David Hume taught that “you cannot learn an ought from an is.” You cannot learn proper behavior from looking out into the world of nature. Tennyson wrote that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Evolution speaks of survival of the fittest. It seems impossible to build such an ethical system on such a few of nature.
Nonetheless, people have tried. There is a whole area of ethics called utilitarianism which teaches that we can measure the pleasure or pain of any action. Something is ethical if it maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Anyone who wants to see how such a utilitarian ethical system would work without belief in God should read The Moral Landscape written by the militant atheist Sam Harris. Rarely have I read a book so well-written that I have disagreed with so strongly. I disagree with utilitarianism because it is a system where nothing is intrinsically good or bad, even murder; it all depends on how much pleasure or pain results.
I certainly prefer another philosophical system, Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics. Kant teaches that there are certain a priori duties we know in our mind. We know rationally to act according to what Kant called the categorical imperative. “Act in a way that you would want your actions to be a universal law.” Kant gives a secular, rational way of restating the Golden Rule. But as those in my class learn, even Kant’s view has problems. Where did this rule in our mind come from?
And so philosophers argue, and will continue to argue forever. I believe that at some point we have to turn back to religion. We need to be good because every human has a certain dignity that needs to be respected. The Torah says that every human being is “created in the image of God.” Sunday is Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. The Nazis began their slaughter by denying the human dignity, indeed the humanity, of millions of people. It seems to me that any ethical system, religious, philosophical, or scientific, must begin with human dignity.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5773)
AFTER BOSTON
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus19:18)
Tragedy and Terror! Anger! Shock! And then Resolve. The emotions after the horrific events at the finish line of the Boston marathon are too familiar. We want to react. And yet sometimes the best reaction is that of Aaron in the Torah two weeks ago, when his two sons were suddenly killed. “And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
I feel a need to say something. But I do not want simply to repeat the tired platitudes I say too often, “we pray for healing for the injured and comfort for the mourners, and that justice be brought on the perpetrators.” There must be some religious lesson we can learn from these events. As of this writing we have no idea who committed this act of terror. Was it foreigners finding where the United States is vulnerable, repeating the actions of 9/11? Was it a home grown terrorist with his own anti-government agenda, repeating the Oklahoma City bombing? Or was it a psychopath, another in a long stream of tragedies that put Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT on the map this year? We do not know. We only know that evil came to Boston. So we ask the question, where did such evil come from?
Perhaps the Torah reading gives a hint. This week we continue reading the section of Torah which scholars call “the holiness code.” We have some of the most stirring passages in the Torah. Do not take vengeance; do not bear a grudge; love your neighbor as yourself. In my writing and speaking over the years I have defined “holiness” as rising above the animal within us. Holiness means controlling our passions. Perhaps there is an animal part of us that seeks to harm our fellow. This week’s portion hints that we must move beyond this natural drive to hurt our neighbor.
One of the deepest questions in both philosophy and religion is: what is the nature of humanity? Are we naturally good or are we naturally evil? Do we have a drive that wants to hurt others? Or is a natural drive to be altruistic? There are strong opinions on both sides.
Anne Frank, in the most famous line of her diary, wrote while hiding from the Nazis, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.” Was she a naïve teenager, or was she telling something profound about humanity? Rodgers and Hammerstein in their wonderful score to South Pacific, wrote that evil is something that “you’ve got to be carefully taught.” In the early Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that in nature humanity is good. It is society that corrupts us. All of these agree that humans are naturally good.
On the other hand, religion teaches that people are born with an evil streak. The Torah teaches, “all the devising of man’s mind is evil from his youth.” (Genesis 6:3) The philosopher Thomas Hobbes taught that humans in nature are corrupt and evil. Life in the wild is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Only society can rescue us from ourselves. Sigmund Freud said that we are driven by inner drives, including a drive for aggression. In a healthy individual that inner drive is sublimated and channeled to a worthy cause. But there are too many unhealthy individuals, still driven by such impulses. All of these agree that humans are naturally evil.
So are we humans naturally good or evil? The classical Jewish answer is that we are both. We are born with a yetzer hatov (good inclination) and a yetzer hara (evil inclination.) The role of society and the role of religion are to teach us to develop our good inclination and control our evil inclination. We can choose to do good and not do evil. In Boston we saw both the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. We saw the evil of the anonymous perpetrator of this act of violence against innocents. And we saw the heroism of first responders, marathon runners exhausted who ran to the hospital to give blood, and average Bostonians who opened their homes to total stranger. We saw that, as terrible as these events were, in the end good can overpower evil.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT
(5771)
THE SCAPEGOAT
“Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.” (Leviticus 16:21)
It is strange thinking about Yom Kippur a few days before Passover. The festivals are six months apart and seem to have little in common. The only thing they share is the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur Neilah service. But this week’s portion begins with the rituals of Yom Kippur in the ancient Temple. Perhaps in reading about this, we can find some common ground.
The central moment of the Yom Kippur ritual was the choosing of a goat to carry away the sins of the people. The High Priest would designate the goat, lay his hands on the goat’s head and symbolically transfer the sins of the Israelites, and send the goat out to Azazel, often translated “the wilderness” but sometimes referring to hell itself. The theme was vicarious atonement, carrying away the sins of others. The English term “scapegoat” comes from this bizarre and ancient ritual. Today we no longer enact this ritual, but we relive it in our liturgy Yom Kippur afternoon.
Christianity has embraced the idea behind this ritual. To Christians, the only way to be cleansed from sin is through the sacrifice of someone pure. Of course, in the eyes of my Christian friends, Jesus became the scapegoat. Without his sacrifice on the cross, we cannot find atonement in God’s eyes. On a fairly regular basis a Christian has come by to try to convince me of the error of my ways and bring me to Jesus. (It happened yesterday.) They are not doing it out of hatred of me or of Judaism; quite the contrary, they claim they are doing it because they are worried about me. In their eyes, without such vicarious atonement, I cannot return to God’s good graces.
I recently conducted a workshop for Passover at a home health care agency. Each year I train these mostly Christian women working with elderly Jewish patients how to handle the Passover holiday. (I also do a similar workshop before the High Holidays.) One woman very sweetly asked me, “Why don’t you accept Jesus. After all, Jesus taught `No one comes to the father except through me’(New Testament – John 14:6).” I answered, “Many of you are parents. Can you imagine a situation where your child does something so sinful that you would cut yourself off from him or her? I cannot imagine that. And I do not believe that God would ever cut Himself off from God’s children.” Another woman wearing a huge cross shouted out, “You are right, rabbi.” I felt like I was in a black church.
With all respect to my Christian friends, Judaism goes in a different direction. We believe that God always welcomes God’s children back when they have strayed. We believe in teshuva – literally “return”, returning to the proper path. There is a Hasidic story of a king who becomes angry with his son and sends him to live in a village far away. After some time, he hears that his son is trying to come back home. The king tells his servants, “Pack up my things. I need to meet my son halfway.” The meaning of the parable is clear.
That brings me to Passover. The mystical interpretation of Passover is that the exodus from Egypt happens at all times. Egypt (Mitzrayim – “the narrow place”) is a place we are stuck, doing the wrong thing. Going out from Egypt means changing our ways and becoming at one with God once again. And just as God helped the Israelites in ancient Egypt, so God helps us return to the proper life.
There was a time in our history when we needed a scapegoat to bring about atonement. Since ancient times, the ritual of the scapegoat has become simply a memory to be reenacted on Yom Kippur. Today God waits for our return. Both Passover and Yom Kippur are Jewish festivals that emphasize such a return to God.

PARSHAT KEDOSHIM
(5771)
THE GOLDEN RULE
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)
We are at the heart of the Torah, the middle book called Leviticus. At the heart of this book is a whole series of laws known as the holiness code. These laws deal with the quest for holiness in all areas of life: diet, sex, agriculture, and in this week’s portion, ethics. At the heart of the portion is the Golden Rule, “Love your fellow as yourself.” This is at the center of the Torah’s vision towards living a holy life.
The centrality of the Golden Rule is also found in an oft quoted Talmudic passage. A potential convert approaches the great sage Hillel asking to convert, but only if Hillel can explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot. The man had already been thrown out of Shammai’s presence. Hillel, in his usual gentle way, stands on one foot and says, “What is hateful to you do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (Shabbat 31a) At the heart of the Torah is the Golden Rule, a call to treat every other human being with dignity and respect.
Of course, this ethical call is based on the fundamental religious idea that human beings were created in the image of God. Every human has a divine spark, or perhaps more accurately, a neshama or divine breath. To mistreat any human being of any race, age, or nationality is to mar the divine breath in that person. To hurt another person is to hurt God. And to help another person is to help God. Our tradition gives a religious basis to the Golden Rule.
One of the fascinating questions of philosophy is – if we take God out of the picture, then what is the basis of ethics? Why treat people with kindness and fairness if people are mere material creatures, having evolved from lower material creatures? If Darwin was correct (and I believe he was about many things) and survival of the fittest is the basis of all life, then why not do what is necessary for survival, even if it hurts others? It is a difficult question to answer.
Sam Harris, perhaps the most articulate of the prominent spokespeople for atheism, recently wrote a book on this very question. He called his book The Moral Landscape. His basic point is that all societies have a sense of what is moral and what is right. Those societies that pursue such morality in their day to day life have a better chance of survival – based on pure Darwinism. Societies that embrace the moral landscape of kindness and cooperation will survive, while those that practice hatred and cruelty will eventually perish. Harris’s book is a great effort, but I doubt that it is historically true. Many societies based on racial prejudice, cruelty, misogyny, and even torture have survived and flourished. The Nazis came very close to winning World War II. (This Sunday is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, the day chosen by the Jewish community to recall the victims of a society that lost its moral landscape.)
There have been numerous other attempts to come up with ethics without God. Perhaps the two most famous in the history of philosophy are utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism teaches that a society should be constructed in a way which maximizes happiness for the maximum number of people. That sounds good in theory. But such a society fails to protect the rights of minority. (What if a society decided that maximum happiness could be achieved if we outlawed ritual circumcision? This is not theoretical – there is a move right now to pass such a law in San Francisco.) Ethics is not just about maximizing happiness for the majority; it is also about protecting happiness for the minority.
A deontological basis for ethics comes closer to the Torah view. It speaks about categorical imperatives. The greatest advocate of such a point of view was the philosopher Immanuel Kant. To quote Kant, humans should “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Act as you wish everybody would act. Kant’s words are beautiful, but ultimately, where does this maxim come from? Without a religious basis, Kant seems to have pulled it out of thin air.
The Torah gives a religious basis for ethics. Every human being was created in the image of God, and is worthy of our respect. It is a maxim as important today as it was in ancient times.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5770)

MONEY

“You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Let me begin with a Hasidic story. A poor man finds a moneybag filled with 100 rubles. Although he is tempted to keep the money, he knows that the Torah teaches to return lost objects. And he recognizes the bag as belonging to a rather unscrupulous rich man in town. So he brings the bag back to the owner.
The rich man sees an opportunity to make a little extra money. Rather than thanking the poor man, he says, “When I lost the bag it had 200 rubles. Now you return it to me with 100 rubles. Where are my other 100 rubles? You owe them to me.” The poor man says he is innocent; he returned the bag intact. But the rich man demands another 100 rubles. Finally they bring the case to the local rabbi.
The rabbi, knowing the two men involved, first turns to the rich man. “You say you lost a money bag containing 200 rubles.” “That is correct.” He then turns to the poor man, “You say you found a money bag containing 100 rubles.” “Yes.” The rabbi then says, “I have made my decision. It is obvious that the bag you found is not the bag you lost. Therefore, the man who found the bag can keep it with all the rubles.”
It is so easy for greed to overwhelm us. We can all use a little more money. Given an opportunity to bend the rules to get some extra money, particularly if we do not get caught, is quite tempting. That is the reason why Bernie Madoff, Scott Rothstein, and other crooks got away with their ponzi schemes as long as they did. That is the reason so many people find themselves in trouble with the law for taking what is not theirs.
This week’s portion contains the beautiful holiness code, including some of the most powerful ethical maxims in the Torah. These include “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) among others. Some of the most important ethical maxims speak about business dealings. We are to have honest weights and measures, an honest scale, and be scrupulously honest when we sell anything. Every business deal must include full disclosure. There can be no unintelligible fine print; when a buyer purchases from us, that buyer ought to know precisely what he or she is buying.
This is true in all of our business dealings. We all sell things at some point in our lives – whether we own a store, sell our home or car, or sell items on e-bay. Even if we work for someone, we are selling our services and our time. Whoever buys needs to know precisely what they are buying. We all buy things from others; the buyer deserves an honest and fair price.
We can easily be tempted into being dishonest in our business dealings. Perhaps we fail to pay back a loan. Perhaps we hide the fact that there was damage to a car we are selling. Or perhaps we steal items from our office or spend too much time taking care of personal business on office time. Young people often fall to temptation to shoplift at the mall. And hiding income from the government to avoid taxes is a national pastime.
We are reading the holiness code in Leviticus. Two weeks ago I wrote about how different faiths find holiness in eating food. Last week I wrote about the laws of family purity and how they lead to holiness in sex. This week I am turning to the question of holiness in money. Food, sex, and money – these are three areas where it is easy to lose control. Holiness is the art of controlling our appetite. And perhaps there is nothing more difficult than keeping our appetite for money under control, particularly when temptation lurks before us.
I remember a man who came to me with a dilemma; his employer wanted him to keep a false set of books. Should he refuse and risk losing his job? I told him that each day he must look into the mirror and decide if he is happy with whom he is. He decided that his integrity was more important than his income. So he quit his job. That is holiness when it comes to money.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5769)

GROWING OLD

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:32)

Bea Arthur died this week. She was the wonderful character actress who made a name for herself in the TV shows Maude and Golden Girls. The Emmy award winning Golden Girls was one of the all time most popular comedies, and yet critics were deeply skeptical whether such a show could appeal to audiences. Television shows need to appeal to the young and the beautiful, the demographics that advertisers crave. Who is going to watch a show about four middle age to old age women? And yet the show took off. And today it is taking off again in reruns.
Despite the popularity of this tv show, we live in a culture which worships youth. The most appealing shows are about the young – O.C., Beverly Hills 90210, The Hills, etc. We spend a fortune on everything from cosmetics to surgery in order to keep looking young. The business of youth affects our economic life; many older workers fear for their jobs. They worry that employers want to replace them with younger, and cheaper, employees. Similarly, as we grow older, many people worry whether their relationships will last. How many men have traded in their wives for younger, newer models. It is all about youth.
With that in mind, let me once again share a story I taught our congregation on the first morning of Passover. The hagaddah speaks of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, “I am like a man of seventy but I never understood why we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt at night.” The Talmud focuses on the words “like a man of seventy.” The leaders of the academy deposed R. Gamliel and looked for a new leader. They turned to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah because he was wise, wealthy, and a direct descendent of Ezra the Scribe. The Talmud continues, “They went and said to him, will your honor consent to become head of the academy? He replied, I will go and consult the members of my family. He went and consulted his wife. She said to him, perhaps they will depose you later on. He replied [with a proverb], Let a man use a cup of honor for one day even if it be broken the next. She said to him, you have no white hair. He was eighteen years old that day, and a miracle was wrought for him and eighteen rows of hair turned white.” (Berachot 27b-28a)
Here is man who was blessed with a miracle and his hair turned white overnight. Today we are horrified if we see even one gray hair. But in Talmudic times it was the elderly, not the youth, who were worthy of honor. A similar idea comes out in another Rabbinic Midrash. When Abraham and Sarah gave birth to Isaac, everyone commented how much they resembled one another. “No one was able to differentiate between father and son. Abraham pleaded with the Holy One blessed be He, to differentiate between father and son. He did so by giving him the characteristics of old age.” (Tanhuma Toldot 6)
Two Rabbinic passages teach that it is better to be old than young. This is a basic value that has been lost in our contemporary culture. Young people may have physical beauty. But older people have a kind of spiritual beauty. They have, through the experience of living and surviving in this world, acquired a wisdom deserving of respect. That is the reason that this week’s portion obligates us to rise before the elderly, and to treat old age with respect.
Unfortunately many elderly people feel abandoned by the young. I often speak with elderly people in our community who rarely, or sometimes never, hear from their children and grandchildren. Many feel that they no longer have a voice in our youth oriented culture. The deep respect for the wisdom of age has been lost in our search for eternal youth.
Perhaps it is worthy to mention a wonderful quote usually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT
EREV PESACH
(5768)

WHERE IS HOLINESS?
“It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.” (Leviticus 16:31)

What is holiness? Where can holiness be found? We are in the middle of the section of Leviticus designated by scholars as the “Holiness code.” Today’s portion deals with the laws of Yom Kippur, which Jews consider the holiest day of the year. The next reading after Passover is actually called “holiness.” And after Shabbat the festival of Passover begins, with its holy observances of conducting a seder, eating matzah, and telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Last week I wrote that young people today have lost their sense of holiness. To quote last week’s message: “The world is filled with unholy behavior. Our young people are growing up in an age of unbridled consumerism, the casual use of alcohol and drugs, the prevalence of foul language, as well as the acceptance of recreational sex.” We must inculcate in our young people a sense of holiness, a sense that life is not simply about following one’s passions and doing whatever feels good. Rather it is about rising above the animal within us.
How do I teach young people about holiness? I often use the example of either Passover or Yom Kippur, festivals that most Jews observe on some level. Take Passover. Imagine you are sitting down to begin your Passover seder and you look outside to your Jewish neighbor’s home. You see the Domino’s delivery truck pulling up with pizzas. (Pizza is made from bread dough and is totally forbidden on Passover.) Would you be bothered? Most Jews would feel that their Jewish neighbor has marred the holiness of the Jewish festival. It is not as if they have done anything ethically wrong; this is not about ethics but about holiness. The sense of holiness has been loss.
It is fascinating to note that there is a huge controversy regarding this point going on in Israel today. Israel despite its Jewish roots is a deeply secular country. But traditionally restaurants, stores, and other public places are not allowed to serve or display bread, cake, and other blatantly forbidden foods on Passover (except in the Arab parts of the country.) A recent court ruling overturned this law, allowing such places to display and serve bread and during Passover. There has been a huge hue and cry, and a powerful sense that serving bread on Passover, even among a non-religious population, mars the holiness of the public sphere. It is unclear how Israel will resolve this issue, where there are frequent skirmishes between those who are concerned with the Jewishness of the country and those who are concerned with religious freedom.
When I am with young people, I often imagine a similar scenario for Yom Kippur. Imagine that you are on your way to synagogue kol nidre night, the beginning of the fast and the holiest night of the Jewish year. Outside you see your Jewish neighbor barbequing steaks to eat for dinner. Again there is nothing ethically wrong with barbequing on Yom Kippur. But somehow the sense of holiness has been marred. It is almost like the stridently anti-religious Jews among the early immigrants to America who help public “Yom Kippur balls,” dances on the holiest evening to show how free they were from religion.
Certainly individuals have every right to eat pizza on Passover and steak on Yom Kippur. When people do it privately, it is a personal matter between them and God. But when people flaunt publicly their non-observance, it becomes a deliberate attempt to undermine the holiness of the day. I imagine Christians can come up with parallel examples of people who publicly mar the holiness of their Christmas or Easter observances.
One last thought about holiness, which comes from the play The Dybbuk. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. The Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple was the holiest spot on earth. The High Priest was the holiest person among the priests, who had a special call to holiness among the Jews. The holiest word in the Hebrew language was God’s unpronounceable name. Once a year on Yom Kippur the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, and that was the only time he could pronounce God’s name. These four holies came together. If the High Priest had an improper thought at that holy moment, it could destroy the world.
May we capture that deep sense of holiness as we gather with our families on this Passover evening.

PARSHAT KEDOSHIM
LOVE THE STRANGER
(5768)

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
This week Jews throughout the world will commemorate Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. We will gather to remember six million Jews and millions of other human beings murdered by the Nazis. And again the question will arise – how could human beings be so cruel to other human beings? How can people be so cruel?
The answer is that have always murdered other human beings who were different – who looked different or practiced a different faith or came from a different ethnic group. The Nazis were not the first and not the last. We have seen genocide in Armenia, in Burundi, in Kosovo, and in our own day in Darfur. What is natural is learning to hate the stranger, to oppress the stranger, to kill the stranger. What is unnatural is learning to love the stranger.
When the Nazis began their campaign to solve the “Jewish Problem” by ridding the world of Jews, they did not immediately create death camps. The first step was passing laws stripping Jews of their humanity. Jews had to wear yellow stars on their clothing, Jews could not employ non-Jews, Jews could not be on the streets after hours, Jews could not live outside designated ghettos. Slowly the rights and the dignity which made Jews human in the eyes of their adversaries were stripped away.
This week we took our synagogue to visit the holocaust memorial down in Miami Beach. Solemnly a large group of young and old walked by the many pictures of the holocaust inscribed on walls of the memorial. I have seen too many such pictures at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and in Yad VaShem in Jerusalem. But one thing struck me this year. In numerous pictures the Nazis stripped the Jews of their clothing. In the Bible it is clothing that gives humans dignity. Making people stand naked is another way of turning them into animals. And when the Jewish people became mere animals, some would say mere vermin, it was a simple step to the gas chambers and crematoria.
Stripping away the humanity of the stranger is natural. What is unnatural is seeing the human dignity of the stranger. That is the wisdom of this wonderful Torah portion. It tells us to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. It commands us to cross the divide that separates us from other humans so we can recognize those of a different faith or color or ethnicity as fully human. It teaches that when we long at the very old or very young, the disabled, those with a different sexual orientation, those who are homeless, or even those who would harm us, we need to see their humanity. Love the stranger does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught from the youngest age.
We just finished our festival of Passover. During the Passover Seder we open the door and cry out, “All who are hungry come and eat.” Not just all Jews, but all human beings. We must feed the hungry of all people. During the Seder we remove a drop of wine from our cup for each of the ten plagues which came onto the Egyptians. A full cup of wine is a full portion of joy; by lessening the wine we lessen our joy. We were redeemed but God’s children suffered. Most important, we must see ourselves as if we personally have experienced the exodus from Egypt. We were strangers. We must learn to see the humanity of the stranger.
Currently I am reading Rabbi Jonathan Sachs book The Dignity of Difference. It is a wonderful book, extremely postmodern for a book by an Orthodox rabbi. By postmodern, I mean that it expresses the idea that there is more than one way to be in the world, that human differences make us precious in God’s eyes. How many of us fail to see the preciousness of those who are different?
The Nazis began their cruel plans against the Jews by stripping them of their humanity. The Torah teaches us to see the humanity of every human being. It is the fundamental lesson of God’s Torah, a lesson that must be taught in every generation.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5767)

THE WHITE FAST AND THE BLACK FAST

“This shall be to you a law for all time. In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.”
(Leviticus 16:29)

I recently reread a Yom Kippur sermon I delivered years ago in Nyack, NY, a few years after I was ordained. The idea was a good one, even if the sermon is somewhat immature. I began with the words, “I was in college during the height of the Vietnam War and the various protests against it. I remember a book that came out at that time called The Jewish Radical. There was a section the book calling for a mass protest by Jews against the war and other forms of social oppression. According to the book, if I remember the quote correctly, `We Jews should descend on Washington D.C. for a mass service and protest on our national day of mourning Yom Kippur.’”
At the time, I do not know what most bothered me about this quote. Was it the idea of using Yom Kippur, a day of prayer, fasting, and introspection for a political protest? (I still get peeved at rabbis who use their High Holiday pulpits for politics.) Or was it the absolute ignorance of the book, calling Yom Kippur a “national day of mourning.” Yom Kippur has many meanings in Jewish tradition. But it is not a national day of mourning. If anything, it is a serious but joyous day. Our sins are being forgiven. That is the reason it is called in Jewish tradition the White Fast. The prophet Isaiah taught us, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18)
We do have a tragic day on the Jewish calendar, the saddest day of the year. It is called Tisha B’Av, and like Yom Kippur, it is a full fast from sundown until darkness the next day. Tisha B’Av is called the black fast, in contrast to Yom Kippur’s white fast. We commemorate the tragedies that occurred on this day, going all the way back to the Biblical event where the Israelites were punished with forty years wandering through the desert. In particular, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem. It is the day the Jews have chosen to remember the long litany of tragedies.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once made a powerful comparison between the black fast and the white fast. Heschel was asked how he could bring himself to fast for twenty-four hours twice a year. He answered that when he was in the depths of despair over the tragedies of our people on Tisha B’Av, who can eat? And when he was uplifted by the spirit of forgiveness on Yom Kippur, who needs to eat? Yom Kippur is such a spiritual high that food becomes unnecessary; we reach a plane beyond our physical needs on that day. Yom Kippur is a joyous fast.
I wrote my sermon about the white fast and the black fast years ago. But the idea still seems relevant today. On a personal level, I confess that I am not a good faster. (Without my morning coffee, I find life difficult.) I fast twice a year, on the black fast and on the white fast. I fast on the black fast because I do feel a need to mourn the sadness of Jewish history, and yet I do not want to overly mourn. I find too many Jews see Judaism as something sad and depressing; I find Judaism joyous. One day of mourning a year is enough.
I fast on the white fast, not only because the Torah commands it, but because for one day a year, I want to rise above the physical. I want to live for one day on a totally spiritual level. And just as angels live without sin, so when we live at this angelic level our sins are forgiven. We become at one with God again. (The term atonement literally means at-one-ment.) To find forgiveness is a joy.
This week’s portion begins with a description of the Yom Kippur rituals as they were carried out in ancient times. Yom Kippur is clearly difficult. Not only do I fast, I have to conduct services and deliver sermons throughout the day to the biggest crowd of the year. By the end of the day I am exhausted. And by the end of the day I am on a spiritual high. Yom Kippur is clearly the white fast.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5766)
TRAINING TO BE GOOD
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17)

I have debated all week whether to see the new movie United 93. The pain of the events of 9/11 portrayed in the movie is still too raw. I barely tolerated sitting through Munich and reliving the pain of the 1972 Olympics. On the other hand, it is vital that we confront evil up close and personal. That is why we send our young people on the March of the Living, to walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau and relive the horrors of the holocaust. We must see the evil that humans are capable of if we are ever to remove evil from our midst.
What makes people good, and what make people evil? There are two prevalent views of human nature. One view teaches that people are naturally good. It is society that corrupts. Change society and you change people. The other view teaches that people are naturally evil. Genes will do what they must for survival. Humans are selfish and depraved. Only through a powerful fear of punishment will evil be stopped. Our tradition teaches that both these views are incorrect.
Where does good and evil come from? How do we teach goodness? How do we fight evil? Let us turn to the words of the great Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from his book The Gulag Archipelago:AIf only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.@
Each and every one of us has good and evil running through our very hearts. Each of us struggles constantly between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. Each of us has the potential to become a saint or a monster, an Albert Schweitzer and an Osama bin Ladin. The rabbis used the language that every human being is born with a yetzer hatov, a good inclination and a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. Good and evil are both natural. Life is a struggle between both of these inclinations. This week’s portion, perhaps more than any other in the entire Torah, is a training guide on how to be good. It contains, among many ethical maxims, the Golden Rule “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Many of us think that talk of evil is not about us. The other guys are the bad guys. We are the good guys. But what would we have done if we were Germans living in the time of the Nazis? Would we have put our lives on the line to save Jews? If you visit Yad v=Shem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, you can see the trees planted on the walkway in honor of righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives. What is noteworthy is how few there are. How rare it is that people do the right thing.
To show how evil lurks under the surface of each of us, I must share a psychology experiment performed by Philip Zimbardo, a professor at Stanford University. He had student volunteers set up a mock prison. Half the students were appointed as prisoners and half were appointed as guards. The guards were given special uniforms and told to keep order. The prisoners were kept in tiny, cell-like rooms. Within a few days, the students playing guards were brutalizing the students playing prisoners. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks. Zimbardo had to shut it down after six days. Perhaps this, more than anything else, explains the brutality we witnessed in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison by American military personnel.
I learned a lesson during a trip to California a few years ago. The Olympic trials for swimming were being held in Long Beach. They actually built a temporary pool over a parking lot, which was dismantled as soon as the trials were over. My cousin, a college student, got a dream summer job. He worked as an intern in the media center for the Olympic trials. And he acquired tickets for me to see one evening of the swimming. So I was able to watch Michael Phelps and Amanda Beard break world records, and even to go back to the press center to meet the athletes. One of my most wonderful memories was a brief face-to-face conversation with Natalie Coughlin after she swam; she went on to win a gold medal in Athens.
Why am I sharing this? One evening they let the staff go for a swim; my cousin decided to swim a few laps in this temporary Olympic pool. He is a college athlete, in good shape, who plays basketball, tennis, and golf. He told me that he swam a lap and a half and was so winded he had to hold onto the rope. It made him appreciate the kind of shape these Olympic swimmers must be in. To be a good swimmer takes a huge amount of training and practice.
Then I had a huge insight. Anything worthy in life takes training and practice. And in particular, to fight the evil inclination and bring out the good within us takes training and practice. In fact, one could easily say that this is the essence of Judaism. All the laws – the Sabbath, fasting on Yom Kippur, eating kosher, avoiding gossip, basically boil down to one goal. They are training in the art of being good. When a potential convert wanted the sage Hillel to teach him all of Judaism while standing on one foot, he replied, AWhat is hateful to you do not do to anyone else. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.@ Judaism is about learning to control evil and do good. And whether one wants to be an Olympic swimmer or a good person, one must put in hours of training and practice. We must constantly train ourselves to be good; that is the only way we can hope for a world with no more United 93’s.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5764)

AN ETHICAL DILEMMA

“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:14)

I threw out an ethical dilemma for discussion at services recently. You hear that an acquaintance has hired someone who used to work for you. You had suspected this employee of dishonesty and had terminated her. Do you tell your friend of your suspicion?
First, let us lay out the ethical rules. According to the Torah, it is forbidden to gossip or speak in a negative way about another human being. “You shall not be a tale bearer among your people.” (Leviticus 19:16) This law certainly holds for slander, any false report that puts our fellow in a negative light. But the law even holds if the gossip is true. It is forbidden to speak in a negative way, whether true or false, that disparages a fellow human being. As the book of Proverbs wisely teaches, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)
If negative words are forbidden in general, how much more so are they forbidden if they prevent someone from receiving a job and earning a living. The great Jewish philosopher and legal scholar Maimonides taught that the highest form of charity is helping people secure employment so that they can support themselves and their families. Few acts would be more negative than to prevent someone from receiving a job and undermining their ability to provide for their family.
There is another reason to avoid speaking negatively about one’s fellow. Perhaps they were dishonest when they worked for you. But perhaps they have changed, become a different human being, put their past behind them. Jewish law forbids mentioning one’s past behavior if one has clearly repented and changed that behavior. People have a right to start all over, renew themselves and become better than whom they were. People can change and when they do, it is improper to bring up the past.
Based on all these factors, it seems the best action would be to keep silent, and not tell your acquaintance of your suspicions regarding this employee. If the employee is honest, there is no problem. If she is dishonest, your acquaintance will find out soon enough. It seems that when there is a doubt, the best action is to hold one’s tongue. Or is it?
There is another side to the issue. This week’s portion teaches that we should never “put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14) This is interpreted not simply in a literal sense of tripping someone who cannot see. The Rabbis of the Talmud understood this law in a much broader sense. It is forbidden to allow someone to stumble when we have knowledge that could prevent them from doing the wrong thing. For example, it is forbidden for stockbroker to recommend high risk trades to a person who does not truly understand that their money is at risk. It is for forbidden for a lawyer to recommend a settlement or a plea bargain to a client unable to comprehend the consequences of their decision.
The understanding of this law against placing a stumbling block before the blind is even stronger. It is forbidden to tempt someone to break a law or transgress a commitment. One cannot serve or even offer a drink to an alcoholic who is struggling to give up drinking. One who is dieting and avoiding certain foods should not be tempted with foods they cannot eat. It goes without saying that a person who observes the Jewish dietary laws should never be given non-kosher food with the attitude “they will never know the difference.”
Based on these insights, one needs to tell a potential employer of the risks of hiring a particular employee. By withholding such information, we are placing a stumbling block before the blind. One must say it in a private way, with kindness, with the understanding that perhaps the person has repented and changed. But we should never allow someone to stumble when we have information that can help them.
What is the answer to this ethical dilemma? Do we tell or do we not tell? And if we do tell, how do we do it in a way that does not destroy someone’s life? Anyone who has ever faced the issue of giving a reference for an employee with less than perfect reviews has faced this dilemma.
My own sense is to tell the truth as kindly, carefully, and discretely as possible. But I understand there is more than one side to this dilemma. I hope this simple case proves the importance of carefully considering the ethical implications of all our actions. I have written elsewhere that we should develop an Action Impact Statement for everything we do. If I take this action, who will be hurt and who will be helped? Through careful consideration of the ethical implications of our actions can we truly, as this portion teaches, be holy as the Lord God is holy.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT
(5763)

VICARIOUS ATONEMENT

“Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.” (Leviticus 16:21)

I was approached recently by a young woman considering conversion to Christianity. She was Jewish enough to want to speak to a rabbi, but obviously had not found spiritual meaning in her own heritage.
I told her that I have a deep respect for Christianity. (In fact, many of you who receive this weekly message are religious Christians, and I have learned a great deal from you.) Having said that, I want Jews to be Jews, and to find their spiritual home in their own faith. There is a reason why Jews have stubbornly clung to their faith for two thousands years without converting to Christianity.
So, with a deep respect for my Christian brothers and sisters, I spoke to her about where Judaism differs. The issue is far deeper than whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. After all, there have been many arguments in Jewish history over who was the Messiah. Rabbi Akiba thought Bar Kochba was the Messiah, thousands in the Middle Ages thought Shabbatei Tsvi was the Messiah, today many believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah. I suppose it depends on how you define Messiah.
The central issue that separates Judaism and Christianity is not the Messiah, but rather how we humans find atonement for our sins. To Christians, we humans are born sinful and there is no way on our own to remove that sinful state. Through our sins we are separated from God. The Bible describes how we find atonement (at-one-ment) with God. A goat carries our sins away into the wilderness, creating vicarious atonement. The word “scapegoat” comes from this very ancient ritual. We Jews still reenact this ritual of placing our sins on the head of a goat, which is designated for Azazel often translated “to a demon” or “to hell.”
Vicarious atonement remains central to the Christian view of humanity. The New Testament teaches, “[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming to him and said, Behold, the lamb of God who takes away sin from the world.” (John 1:29) From a Christian perspective, without Jesus there can be no atonement and no salvation. Only someone without sin has the power to take away our sins.
With all due respect, Judaism has rejected this idea. Perhaps the best illustration is a man who once came to me for counseling. He confessed to me a number of sins he had done over many years, and then he came to the point of our meeting. “Rabbi, do you think God can still love me after what I have done?” I answered with a question, “You have a child. Can you imagine anything your child would do that would make you stop loving that child.” He answered, “No.” I continued, “So it is with God. God never stops loving you.”
I continued, “When your child does something wrong, you obviously want your child to change his or her behavior and start doing the right thing. But you do not stop loving your child.”
This is the Jewish view of sin. We all go down the wrong path in some area of our lives. But we do not need vicarious atonement to take away our sins and become at one with God. We do not need an intermediary. God, like a parent, may be disappointed in us, but God does not stop loving us.
Ultimately, we are responsible for our own behavior. There are no intermediaries, no scapegoats, no vicarious atonement. If we do wrong, it is our responsibility to try to do right. What God really seeks is true repentance. Changing our behavior is hard work. But a good God, like a good parent, expects nothing less from His children.

PARSHAT KEDOSHIM
(5763)

CURSING THE DEAF

“You shall not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
(Leviticus 19:14)

Among the many beautiful ethical laws in this week’s Torah reading is the commandment: “You shall not curse the deaf.” The question that comes to my mind is – why not? If I insult or curse the deaf, as long as they cannot read my lips, they cannot hear me. Therefore, they will not know that I insulted them. So what is the harm? I have gotten my anger out of my system, and the deaf person could not hear me anyway. What is wrong about derogatory words towards someone who cannot hear those words?
The answer is that perhaps the deaf person will somehow hear my curse and their dignity will be lowered. Or if they do not hear, perhaps some third party will overhear me and will see the dignity lowered of this deaf person. Or perhaps, no one will hear, but the dignity of another human being will be lowered in my own eyes. By saying derogatory words about another human being, even if no one hears it, I will perceive that human being as somehow less worthy. My curse may change how I treat another human being. And since each human being is created in the image of God, my insult becomes an insult to God.
One of the greatest concerns of the Torah is avoiding any action that lowers the dignity of another human being, even if that person does not know about it. That is why the Torah forbids gossip. That is why we cannot respond to our fellow human with anger. That is why we need to carefully guard our words to avoid harming anybody.
Besides derogatory words, there are other actions we do too often which lowers the dignity of other human beings. For example, one of the ways we humans avoid seeing the humanity of someone else is through stereotypes. We see a person who is old or young, who is an Orthodox Jew or an Evangelical Christian, who is a Moslem or a Hindu, who is black or Hispanic, who is gay or bi-sexual, and who is European or Israeli or Asian or South American, and we immediately place them into a box. They become some pre-conceived image of who they really are, a mere stereotype. They lose their individuality, and by doing so, they lose their humanity. It is a simple way to avoid seeing the real person.
Similarly, we come up with ethnic slurs for other human beings, based on race, religion, nationality, or dozens of other superficial characteristics. During war we often come up with nasty nicknames for the enemy. When Japanese become Japs or Vietnamese become Gooks, their humanity evaporates. It becomes less painful to go to war against them. Name calling is a classic way of lowering the dignity of another human being. That is why every despised group in history has a derogatory name. And that is why it is vital to avoid using such names to discuss any groups.
One final way we lower the dignity of other human beings is by being judgmental. None of us can know what another human being is going through. The great sage Hillel taught, ADo not judge your fellow until you stand in his place.@ (Avot 2:4) I can never know precisely what extenuating circumstances caused a person to behave in a certain way.
Stephen Covey of The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People tells a moving story about judgment. He was in a subway when he saw a man with several young children. The children were acting quite unruly, bothering other passengers, while the father stood there taking no action. Finally he spoke up and disparaged the man.
He looked up sadly. “Our my children becoming disruptive. I am sorry, I did not even notice. They lost their mother today and we just came back from saying goodbye.” Covey realized that he had judged the man without knowing all the facts. Suddenly his attitude towards him changed.
There are many ways we lower the dignity of our fellow human beings. We do it by belittling them, even if they cannot hear. We do it by stereotyping, or by using ethnic slurs. We do it by being judgmental. Perhaps we each need to do a Ahuman dignity impact statement@ before every word we utter and every action we take. By this particular action, are we lowering or raising the human dignity of a fellow human being? And in doing so, are we lowering or raising the image of God in this world?

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT B KEDOSHIM
(5762)

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN HOLINESS

“You shall be holy for I, the Lord God, am holy.”
(Leviticus 19:2)

Many years ago when it was still legal, I shared the podium with a Catholic Priest at a public high school graduation. I gave the opening invocation and he gave the closing benediction. In the middle pandemonium broke out when one graduating senior let a mouse loose up on the dais. The Priest turned to me and said, “The problem with young people today is that they do not know the difference between the holy and the profane.”
My youngest son Benjamin will become a Bar Mitzvah this week as we read the double portion of aharei mot – kedoshim. Kedoshim means holy (literally holies), and contains one of the most powerful chapters in the entire Torah, the call to holiness in both our relationship with God and with each other. How do I explain to my thirteen year old son what holiness is?
We humans have evolved from animals, and still contain a good deal of an animal-like nature within us. Nonetheless, we were also created in the image of God and contain a good deal of an angel-like nature within us. As humans, we are perched somewhere between the animal and the angel. When we reach above our animal self and strive to attain the angel within us, that is what the Torah calls kadosh – holy.
If we were mere animals, the role of a father would stop after he plants his seed in the female. For most species of animals, the male plants his seed and then walks away. His job is done. The female animal gives birth and nurtures during the youngest stage of life. But animals live by instinct, and fairly quickly live on their own. Not so humans.
For humans, birth is just the beginning. The Torah gives fathers a whole series of obligations towards his son after he is born. (I can speak of mothers and daughters also, but this month my mind is on my particular role as father to my son.) According to a passage in the Talmud, (kiddushin 29a) a father must arrange a bris, and when necessary a pidyon haben. He must teach his son a trade, and when he is of age, find him a proper wife (I will try but I doubt if he will listen.) He must teach him to swim (particularly important here in south Florida with so many pools, many of them unfenced.) And finally, he must teach his son Torah. By Torah, I mean much more than the five books of Moses. I mean the vast number of teachings on how to rise above the animal and become a little more angel like.
My job as a father has been to teach my son that he must achieve holiness throughout his life. He cannot simply follow his appetite as animals do. He must recognize Shabbat and the other sacred days on the calendar. He must honor his father and his mother, respect his elders, care for his brother and sister. He must give to the poor, avoid gossip, never curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, treat people fairly, and love his neighbor as himself. He must find holiness in all of his relationships, with his family, with his friends, and hopefully someday with his own wife and children. Finally he must find holiness in his relationship with God, through prayer and synagogue life.
My job as a dad is to teach him. I must teach by words, but more important, I must teach by personal example. As he reaches the age of Bar Mitzvah, he begins to become responsible for his own behavior. If this were an Orthodox synagogue, I would say “Baruch She’petarani MeOnsho Shel Ze” “Blessed is the One Who freed me from punishment for this one’s sins.” (I do not have the father say these here, because he is still legally responsible, at least until eighteen if not further.) But more and more my son must prove responsible for his own behavior.
How will I know if I was successful as a father? Certainly the teen years are the most difficult and challenging. I will have to wait and see how he grows up, and most important, how he raises his own children some day. As the Talmud so aptly puts it, “The love of the father is towards the son, the love of the son is towards his own son.” (Sota 49a)

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM
(5761)

FATHERING AND MOTHERING

“You shall each revere your mother and father”
(Leviticus 19:3)

What is the difference between being a mother and being a father? There is a passage in the Talmud based on this week’s Torah reading which points towards an answer. The Torah teaches “You shall each revere (or fear) his mother and father…” (Leviticus 19:3) The Ten Commandments says “honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12) The rabbis noted that when it comes to reverence or fear, the mother is mentioned first, while in terms of honor the father is mentioned first. The reason is because a person has a natural tendency to honor their mother (who cared for and nurtured them) and fear their father (“wait until daddy gets home!”) (Kiddushin 30b-31a) We tend to honor the one who nurtured us, revere the one who laid down rules and punished transgressions. Therefore the Torah emphasizes that we must also honor our father and revere our mother.
My work with children and families, as well as my reading of Jewish tradition, has convinced me that there is a difference between mothering and fathering. Sometimes, due to death, divorce, abandonment, or other circumstances, a single parent must do both the mothering and the fathering. Sometimes mothers are better at fathering, or fathers are better at mothering. But speaking in broad generalities, there is a difference between men and women which is reflected in their approach to child raising. Children do best when there is a mother for mothering and a father for fathering. In a perfect world they would even be married to each other.
Some would claim that there is no difference between a father and a mother. I recently read a sermon by a prominent rabbi who claimed that there is no such thing as fathering or mothering, simply generic parenting. In a society which tends to erase all gender differences, I believe it is vital to concentrate on the unique qualities that both a father and a mother bring to their children.
This difference between mothering and fathering is already reflected in the Hebrew language. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder of the conservative group Towards Tradition, teaches that there are words in classical Hebrew for mother and for father, but no word for parent. One cannot say single parent in Hebrew. One can only say the plural parents, horim, from the same root as to teach. This simple Hebrew insight seems to indicate that it takes two to parent, each with slightly different roles.
What is mothering and what is fathering? Dr. Deborah Tannen, in her brilliant little book You Just Don’t Understand, has beautifully summarized the essential difference between men and women. These differences are based on primitive attributes of both sexes that allowed survival in the jungle. According to Tannen, women have a fundamental need for connection and intimacy; men have a fundamental need for status and recognition. Women are concerned with relationships and attachments, men with independence and achievement. Again speaking in broad general terms, these fundamental gender differences are reflected in parenting styles.
Tine Thevenin, in her book Mothering and Fathering; The Gender Differences in Child Rearing, writes, “The most significant psychological difference between men and women is that men tend to be self-focused and seek independence, while women tend to be other-focused and seek intimacy and connectedness.” Mothering is concerned with questions of connection, nurturing, unconditional acceptance. Fathering is concerned with mentoring, success skills, independence. A child needs both.
Children, if they are to flourish, need both mothering and fathering. They need someone who emphasizes connection and belonging, to nurture them and accept them unconditionally, giving them the same feeling of comfort of a nursing baby. They need someone who emphasizes independence and competence, to teach them the rules and skills they need to survive once they leave the nest, to make demands and lay down expectations. Certainly many single parents do wonderful jobs raising children on their own. Nonetheless, the Torah presents an ideal of a man and a woman, in partnership, raising their children together. It reflects the divine wisdom, that every child deserves a mother and a father.

PARSHAT AHAREI MOT
(5760)

HOMOSEXUALITY?

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.” (Leviticus 18:22)

This week’s portion discusses forbidden sexual relations. In doing so, it touches on one of the most controversial issues facing the religious community today – homosexuality. How ought religious Jews and Christians relate to this divisive issue?
I cannot treat this at length in a short spiritual piece like this. However, what I can do here is try to search for some common ground, something that the most conservative religious believer and the most fervent gay activist can agree upon.
Perhaps the best place to begin is with the question, what precisely is forbidden by the Torah? Many people have told me that the Bible forbids people from being gay. That is false. The Bible never forbids people from being anything, it obligates particular actions and forbids particular actions. It is a specific act that is prohibited in this portion, not sexual attraction nor sexual desire.
The particular act which the Torah forbids is what the rabbis call mishkav zachar, a man having a sexual encounter with another man. Nothing is mentioned about lesbianism, although one later Rabbinic source forbids it as a type of promiscuity. What is important is that one particular sexual act may be forbidden, but nowhere is the person forbidden from being. The Torah is concerned with the act, not the person.
Today our society is carefully rethinking how it views people attracted to their own gender. Should we reconsider and rewrite this particular Torah prohibition? There are at least four different ways, depending on one’s particular religious outlook, to answer this question. These are all things over which reasonable people might disagree.
Some would say that if the Torah forbids an act, then it is forbidden and there is no room for compromise. To quote the Talmud, “let the law pierce the mountain.” (Sanhedrin 6b) One must abide by the law, even if it is painful or difficult. It is God’s word. This is the view of most traditionalists on this issue.
Some would say that, even if the Torah forbids an act, there is room to be more flexible on a case by case basis. Afterall, the Torah in this week’s portion also obligates one to fast on Yom Kippur. Nonetheless, an individual who feels that he or she cannot abide by the for medical reasons can opt out. Afterall, “the heart knows its own bitterness.” (Proverbs 14:10) This is the view I explore in my books.
Some would say that, when the Torah forbid homosexual acts, it did not have the scientific knowledge we have today. They claim that there are constitutional gays who, by there very nature, are unable to pursue a heterosexual relationship. The law in the Torah could not possibly apply to such individuals; its scope must be limited to those who truly have a choice.
Some would say that, not only must we reinterpret this law, but today we must find a way to sanctify gay relationships. We must to bless such unions, either with the symbols of traditional marriage or some other ceremony of commitment. This is the view of many gay activists, including the majority of Reform rabbis according to a vote at their recent convention.
These are four very different views. Can they all agree on anything? I believe that advocates of each of these points of view can agree that all human beings, regardless of sexual orientation, are created in the image of God. All are welcome in our houses of worship. All must be treated with the full human dignity they deserve. Reasonable people can disagree on how to interpret a law in Leviticus. Nobody can disagree that we must never use a law to marginalize or dehumanize any individual. We must see the Godliness in everybody, regardless of sexual orientation.

PARSHAT KEDOSHIM
(5760)

THE POWER OF SPEECH

“You shall not be a talebearing among your people.”
(Leviticus 19:16)

This portion is a call to holiness in our daily life. But what does the word “holy” really mean? When I ask young people to define “holy,” they usually say sacred. When I ask them to define “sacred,” they usually say holy. So the cycle continues.
I have a working definition of “holy” I use in my teaching. We are holy when we rise above our animal nature, seeking rather to imitate God. Humans are part animal, just as the evolutionists claim. But we also contain the breath of God, a holy neshama (soul, literally breath). When we move above our animal nature and seek to demonstrate a Godliness, we are being holy. As this portion teaches, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
One of the main areas that differentiates us humans from the animal kingdom is the power of speech. Speech gives us God like power. After all, God used speech to create the world. The Bible teaches that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) Some may say “sticks and stones can break by bones, but words can never hurt me.” Anyone who has ever been the victim of verbal abuse or gossip knows that words hurt. Sometimes it takes longer for a broken heart damaged by unkind words to heal than for a broken bone to mend.
God shared some of God’s divine power by giving us mortals the ability to speak. There is one story in the Bible where we misused this power to build a tower and challenge God. At the Tower of Babel, God confused our speech and limited our ability to communicate with one another. Speech has the potential to destroy, but also the potential to heal.
Holiness in speech takes many forms. In this portion we learn that we are not to go from place to place spreading gossip about others. This is true whether the gossip is true or false. Sometimes even saying something nice can indirectly hurt someone. “So-and-so finally lost some weight.” “Look who came dressed up today.” “This week the rabbi’s sermon made sense.” It is a slap in the face dressed as a compliment.
Holiness in speech goes beyond avoiding gossip. It also means avoiding the crudeness and profanity that passes for speech today. It is painful to go to a contemporary movie (and I say this as a movie lover). Virtually every movie contains profanity, often simply to avoid the G rating which can be box office suicide. Popular songs contain crude language and are filled with sexual innuendos that detract from the holiness of relationships. Too many of our young people, influenced by both the media and their peers, use language that (to quote a lyric from My Fair Lady, a musical from a more refined time) “would make a sailor blush.”
Animals simply follow their appetites. Too many humans also behave in an animal-like way, following their appetites, saying whatever comes into their heads, speaking about others, using crude language, misusing the power of words. It is the antithesis of holiness.
Words give us God-like power. The right word at the right time, carefully thought out, can heal. How many of us remember the words of our parents, of a special teacher, of a coach, of a spiritual or political leader. How many of us remember words that inspired us and raised us up. Each time we speak, may we recall the ancient words of King Solomon “death and life are in the power of the tongue.”