Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
May 2, 2020

Each week, I come before you looking to share a message of hope and inspiration. If I cannot bring inspiration, then I pray to bring education, to teach the mitzvot, to teach a meaningful Jewish life. I strive to connect our parsha to our daily lives, finding insights in our tradition to strengthen our souls and ourselves in difficult times. This week, amidst the sacrifice and ritual details of Leviticus, we read the Holiness Code, discussing ethics and morals and sex, sometimes in explicit detail. Our double parsha, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, has selections that are read on Yom Kippur, a day we find most holy.

This week I thought about the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. Aaron offers sacrifices on behalf of himself, his family, the cohanim, and the entire people Israel. Each step along the way, he must purify himself.

According to our Machzor, our high holiday prayerbook, we read:

תִּמֵּם טְבִילוֹת חָמֵשׁ וְקִדּוּשִׁים עֲשָׂרָה. תֹּאַר מְגַמָּתוֹ כְּצֵאת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בִּגְבוּרָה

Thus performing for the day, five immersions and ten washings. The appearance of his face was like the brilliance of a sunrise.

Five times he immersed in the mivkah, ten times he washed his hands. When he comes out of the holy of holies, his face shines with the brilliance of the sun. Our tradition teaches that this beauty comes from reflecting Gd’s brilliance, but in this moment in our history, I am thinking of the power of washing his hands. For all of us, we have recently discovered the power of thoroughly washing our hands.

For the last several weeks, we have been living our lives in a more restricted fashion. We have remained home, reduced our shopping, not travelled around the world or even far outside our neighborhoods. We have not visited one another physically or even come into our holy places. It has been challenging. We have begun to wear masks. We have washed our hands more regularly than we might have before if we were not chefs, medical professionals or immunocompromised. In the coming weeks, many states are opening their doors again. What happens next is a big if. Will people continue to follow the social distancing guidelines appropriately? Will we continue to keep the infection rates low here or will the newfound “freedoms” encourage people to too quickly go back to the way things were “before”? In doing so, we may see new challenges and renewed loss.

We have been blessed at CBI and in Pinellas County. I pray we will continue to be so blessed. I want to look at the core values of this week’s parsha.

If you were to list the most important Jewish practices, what comes to mind? For me, Ahad Ha’am taught powerfully, more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. Others might speak about kashrut, how keeping Jews from eating with others encouraged them to socialize among Jews, encouraging Jewish continuity. Midrash teaches us that our business practices--having honest weights and measures are central to Jewish identity--as we read this week Leviticus 19:35 “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. 36 You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.”

A number of years ago, I heard Rabbi Shuli Passow’s senior sermon at JTS

Citing Abraham Joshua Heschel, she taught, “The self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel.” Man's Quest For God : Studies In Prayer And Symbolism (1954), p. 7. In contrast to the culture of American individualism, Judaism is a communal culture, which sometimes requires us to sublimate our own individualistic desires for the greater good, to act altruistically.

Shuli shared the surprising practice that Maimonides saw as essential to Judaism, a commandment that does not apply outside of biblical Israel. Leket and Peah! These commands, which you likely have never even heard of come from Leviticus 19:9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.”

Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah talks about the rules of intimate relations, includes a chapter (number 14) devoted to the laws of conversion to Judaism. For the Rambam, conversion is relatively straightforward. He first asks:

Halacha 1
What is the procedure when accepting a righteous convert?...we ask him: "Why did you choose to convert? Don't you know that in the present era, the Jews are afflicted, crushed, subjugated, strained, and suffering comes upon them?" If he answers: "I know. Would it be that I be able to be part of them," we accept him immediately. ( )

First we establish the connection to Jewish peoplehood.

Next we teach her some of the laws. Not all of them, just a few. Again, we are checking to see if they REALLY want to be part of the Jewish people.

Halacha 2
We inform him of the fundamentals of the faith, i.e., the unity of God and the prohibition against the worship of false deities. We elaborate on this matter. We inform him about some of the easy mitzvot and some of the more severe ones. We do not elaborate on this matter. We inform him of the transgression of [not leaving] leket, shichachah, pe'ah, and the second tithe. And we inform him of the punishment given for [violating] the mitzvot….

We do not teach him all the particulars lest this cause him concern and turn him away from a good path to a bad path….

Most important for today--We inform him of the transgression of [not leaving] leket, shichachah, pe'ah, and the second tithe.

Why would these mitzvot be the first ones we would teach? It comes back to the Heschel quote, as opposed to keeping ALL of our earnings, all of our produce, as Jews, we are required to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. We are obliged to go against our instinct of self-preservation, of family-preservation to leave some of our earnings and give them away. By ensuring that the people who convert to Judaism respect Jewish values, we also demonstrate what we think the most important Jewish values are! For Maimonides, caring for others is the central Jewish value. Like the story of Hillel and the convert, Maimonides sees Jewish values as encouraging us to improve this world and those within it. While these specific commands are no longer applicable, the concepts behind them are.

Looking at those texts and Maimonides’ source in Yevamot, Shuli demonstrated that Parshat Kedoshim is not just a random collection of laws, but a philosophy of Judaism, a theology of love, of kindness, of support for one another.

Looking beyond the examples she made, we can look at the verse we read this morning. “19:14 You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” There again we see that we are commanded to protect those who cannot protect themselves, not to take advantage of them.

Leviticus 19:16 teaches us לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor or in some translations, do not profit from the blood of your neighbor.

As we look around the world today, what kind of Judaism do we want to live?

As we look at the way this virus has affected our finances, our community member’s finances, and the daily needs of individuals? What are we doing? To live authentically as Jews, Shabbat and kashrut must be important parts of our lives. Yet, they cannot be the only defining factors. We must look out for our neighbors, here in St. Petersburg and throughout the country. There is a lot of work to be done, we cannot abdicate our responsibilities!

Sermon can be found one hour and fifty-seven minutes into the service.