By Rabbi Jon Cutler
Parshat Aharei Mot-K’doshim
The double portion of the Torah reading this week, Aharei Mot-K’doshim, contains one chapter that’s known for its moral power, Chapter 19. It is only 37 verses but becomes foundational to Judaism because it defines a just and compassionate society.
It begins with a command for the nation to be holy, because God is holy. This concise but powerful chapter tells Israel that children must revere their father and mother, observe the Sabbath, resist any form of idolatry and leave parts of a harvested field untouched so that the poor can have the dignity of collecting their own sheaves. Laws against theft, swearing falsely in a court of law and fraud are combined with the positive law of paying one’s laborers promptly and without delay.
And putting a stumbling block before the blind was understood to mean that one must never lead another astray in any transaction and that a judge must render a just decision, asserting that all people before the court must be treated equally. Honoring the aged and honesty in business are part of creating a new world reality that is full of compassion, justice and holiness.
These laws include the renowned verse of “Love your fellow as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) quoted in the Christian scriptures and in many moral codes in the Western world. But, significantly, not only Israelite citizens were to be treated with equity, but the stranger, as well. And the Torah demands that one must love the stranger, because you know what it was like to be a stranger, when you were slaves in Egypt (Leviticus 19: 34).
Nothing defines the health of a society as much as the level of trust that individual citizens have for one another and trust in the institutions that safeguard the basic rights and obligations of all the inhabitants of the land. When that trust breaks down, anger, jealousy, envy and suspicion devastate society.
When people do not act morally a downward spiral is created because trust is built on moral behavior. The outcome is that people begin to circumvent the rules and regulations. Those who are not able to outwit the “system” are at a loss, leading to resentment, which fuels conspiracy theories, outright lies and unabashedly shameless behavior leading to cynicism and despair.
An example of trust being broken was one of the major scandals last year when some obscenely wealthy parents found ways to bribe their children’s entry into prestigious colleges that would not ordinarily accept them.
Unlike bribery, which is obvious another prohibition, what is not obvious is, “Do not curse a deaf person” (v. 14). Why would the Torah single the deaf person from among all people?
A verbal assault is meant to hurt that person. But if the person cannot, hear why would he or she still wish to curse at them? Ibn Ezra states: “Do not curse the deaf person – simply because you have the power to do so.” In other words, we sometimes do things because we can, with no fear of consequences. It is an act of cruelty.
Social media often creates the illusion that we can scream curses because the volume button is on “mute.” An outcome is that so many comment sections and other channels are swamped with violent and hateful expressions.
But the Torah instructs us to refrain from rage and violent speech and, though it will not be heard and no one will seem to be hurt by our curses, it is still an act of cruelty which can overflow into the real world. This mitzvah is a fence to prevent this from happening.
Therefore, the basis of an ethical society is trust, which begins with just weights, fair scales and evenhanded measures overseen by judges who cannot be bought, and by citizens who act in ways of creating a just society and hold their leaders to be responsible for a just and fair leadership showing compassion.
The Torah portion begins with the acclamation: “You shall be holy … (Leviticus 19: 2). And then the Torah continues with a catalog of right behaviors which for moral depth and ethical breadth stands as a landmark for what sacred living is all about. A sacred society is not just about religion or religious practice, but about proper behavior, acts of trustworthiness, and love of the stranger (Leviticus 19: 33-34). The Torah portion this week speaks to us with a clearness and a powerful message.
Rabbi Jon Cutler is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.