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Leviticus, COVID-19, and Indirect Responsibility

May 12, 2020

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

[Excerpted from the Friday night sermon, Shabbat Emor 5780, May 8 2020]

Dear friends,

At the end of this week’s Torah Portion, Emor (Leviticus 24:10-23) there is a sad, horrifying and perplexing story.

It begins as a man, the son of an Israelite mother, from the tribe of Dan, and an Egyptian father, “vayetze/goes out” among the children of Israel. He gets into a fight with an (unidentified) Israelite man. Then, this son of the Israelite woman and Egyptian man pronounces G?d’s name and blasphemes. He is brought to Moses who places him under guard while Moses approaches G?d for counsel about this case. G?d then tells Moses to “take the blasphemer out of the camp. Those who heard him blaspheme shall lean their hands upon his head; the entire assembly shall then stone him” (verse 14). Afterwards, Moses is to remind the people of the great, capital sin of blasphemy and its consequences.

I understand the seriousness of the sin of Chilul Hashem, acting publicly in a way which disgraces G?d, Torah and Israel and conversely the great mitzvah of Kiddush HaShem, acting publicly in a fashion which brings honor to G?d, Torah and Israel. These have the power to further or derail our entire purpose as Jews.

Still, this story over the last two thousand years ago has caused consternation among our Sages, who tried to understand the background and motivations of this man, the son of an Israelite mother and Egyptian father.

Rashi (11th Century France) focused on the opening word of the story, “Vayetze”, this man “went out”. He cites the understanding of the Sifra, an early Talmudic Midrashic text, which comments, “MiBeit dino shel Moshe yatza m’chuyav”, “he went out from the court of Moses which ruled against him”.

According to the Sifra, the man in that court argued that because his mother was Jewish, he was a Jew and so obligated to follow all the mitzvot of Torah. And since his mother was from the tribe of Dan, he went to the Danites to establish in their camp a residence. The Danites told him that tribal encampment in Israel was determined patrilineally, by the father, and rejected him. So, this man was in an impossible situation. Although he bore all the obligations of an Israelite, he was denied the privileges of living within Israelite society.

In despair he turned to the highest authority, to Moses’s court of justice. To his great disappointment, that court ruled against him and in favor of the Danites.

Then Moses turned to G?d, Who sustained this verdict and even issued a death sentence against the man.

The man then asked himself, “What sort of law is this that considers me bound by all the obligations of the people but not entitled to residence and any privileges? There is no justice in the law and since the law is not just the Lawgiver must also be unjust!”.

So, the Rabbis two thousand years ago in the Sifra sympathized with this man’s plight. They discuss especially his punishment, which begins with all those who heard the blasphemy laying their hands upon his head. They point out that this action can represent the assumption by the community of indirect responsibility, similar to the way that at times–most famously in the ancient Yom Kippur ritual—the priests lay their hands on sacrificial animals to transfer human sins to the animals.

So, here. those who heard the blasphemy are trying to clear themselves of any indirect responsibility. Perhaps, the Sifra imagines, there was something in their actions, in their treatment of this man, which contributed to his alienation and eventually to his great sin. Certainly this man’s experience of prejudice and indifference contributed to his death.

In other words, when there is a lack of social solidarity the public bears some responsibility for the actions of society’s persecuted and marginalized.

This understanding is quintessentially Jewish. In our tradition, the individual is defined by his, her or their membership in the group. And in the community, every one is responsible for every other.

Today, in our country, COVID?19 is killing tens of thousands and forcing millions into want and desperation. But it is also now clear that inequality and racism were destroying our country well before COVID?19. The death rate today in poor communities, especially those of people of color, is several times greater than in affluent communities. This is a result of the lethality and transmissibility of coronavirus, but it’s also a symptom of a sick society.

For too long we have regarded disease and inequality as minor aberrations in a society which was otherwise healthy.

So our poor, if they were lucky enough to work, were in low wage, part time and otherwise vulnerable positions. These are the people like the meat processing workers in Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado who President Trump last week ordered to work despite unsafe and even deadly conditions in many of their workplaces.

We are listening, appropriately, to Dr. Fauci and other medical and scientific experts. But we should also listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, zecher tzadik livracha, of blessed and saintly memory, who reminded us that “the prescription for the cure rests with an accurate diagnosis of the disease”.

Two years before the first reported case of coronavirus in America, the Poor People’s Campaign, with the Institute for Policy Studies, released an Audit of America using Census Bureau guidelines and statistics. They found that almost half of our country’s population—140 million people—are poor, or just a small one-time emergency away from poverty. More than half of these are people of color.

This broad and socially sanctioned injustice was the ground work for the rapid spread of coronavirus and death in minority and poor communities.

Viruses attack us from the outside in. Moral callousness, racism, and economic injustice will kill us from the inside out.

It is not too late.

T’shuva, repentance, begins with Viddui, confession, recognition, whether the laying on of hands on the blasphemer or our audits and studies today.

Then it proceeds with Azivat HaChet, setting aside the sin and joining in concrete individual and collective actions which can free us from all the narrowness and despair of the past. Then, neighborhood by neighborhood, we can build a culture of fairness and hope.

It is not too late.

Let this virus be our teacher, and awaken us to see other citizens as our brothers and sisters, and to make sure that no one is afraid or desperate or sick.

May we continue to join together in health and safety,

Rabbi Weintraub

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