Thursday, April 22, 2010

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

This week’s Torah portion is a double portion, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16-20.  Occasionally we have to double up on portions in order to finish the reading cycle by Simhat Torah and so this week we are blessed with a reading that is filled with many different ideas.

This being Leviticus there is of course instructions about a sacrifice.  It is not any ordinary sacrifice described here but the Yom Kippur scapegoat offering.  We are also given detailed instructions about sexual mores.  Rather than saying a husband should only have sex with his wife and a wife only with her husband, Leviticus 18 provides a detailed listing enumerating with whom you should not have sex.  “Don’t have sex with your sister…  Don’t have sex with animals…”  (Thank God that was clarified!)  “Don’t have sex with your neighbor’s wife…”  In biblical parlance the chapter reads, “Do not uncover the nakedness of your sister…  Do not lie with your neighbor’s wife…”  It is in this chapter that homosexual sex is also explicitly forbidden by the Torah.  It should be noted that in all these cases Judaism legislates against actions not feelings.  (If you are interested in learning more about these sexual laws and my interpretation of them, listen to this week’s podcast.)

What is most intriguing is that the entire chapter is introduced by the phrase, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.  My rules alone shall you observe…”  There is a clear and unmistakable sense in these chapters that the Jewish people must be set apart by their observance and in particular their behavior.  It is in this context that chapter 19 is introduced.  This chapter contains a fabulous collection of ethical laws.  “Love your neighbor as yourself!”  (Lest one become confused this is of course a different kind of love.  Sex and love are not the same.  They only become one within the holiness of marriage.)  There is also the command, “Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And of pressing note vis-à-vis this week’s news, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity.  You shall have an honest balance, honest weights…”  (Leviticus 19:35-36)    This brings me to my question for tomorrow evening’s Shabbat service.  The work week began with reports of the SEC filing charges against Goldman Sachs.  Did Goldman knowingly falsify measures?  Were their complicated financial instruments rigged to benefit those who were shorting the mortgage markets?  Did Paulson’s firm play too active a role in creating these instruments?

Some might be saying to themselves, “I can’t believe he is taking on every controversial issue in one missive!”  But such is the nature of Torah.  If the Torah is going to speak to our times, we have to allow it to tackle our most pressing problems and dilemmas.  Part of the mystery of Torah is the coincidence of its portions with contemporary events.  Let Torah speak to today’s issues!

Others might be saying that when it comes to Wall Street and the economy I am simplifying matters.  Yet for all the times my friends have tried to explain to me the idea of shorting a stock I still fail to grasp it.  I don’t understand how you can bet against anyone.  The nature of my work is to always bet for everyone, never against.  I always bet on people succeeding, and more importantly doing right.

In these verses about honest weights the Torah seems to be speaking about someone who placed their finger on the scales weighing it in his favor or about somehow who used a weight that was purposely mislabeled.  It was not speaking about complicated financial instruments.  Or was it?  Can the Torah’s laws about honest weights and measures be applied to today’s problems?  As Jews should we be guided by a higher law than the laws of the land in which we live?  Perhaps what is legal is not always ethical.

I am a simple man when it comes to matters of right and wrong.  When it comes to matters of the heart, I am, like everyone else, more complicated.  In Hebrew “honest” is rendered from tzedek which can also be translated as “just.”  And so when does “complicated” become deceitful, and unjust?

At Shabbat Services we will explore these questions further.  There, for at least that brief hour, all of the world’s controversies will be solved.  On Shabbat we taste perfection.  Shabbat Shalom!

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