The Talmud reports: “Except for the prohibitions against murder, incest and idolatry, any commandment must be set aside for pikuah nefesh, saving a human life.” (Sanhedrin 74a)
This week’s Torah portion concurs: “v’chai b’hem, you shall live by them” (Leviticus 18: 5) The commandments are intended to be life affirming. We are not to die because of them. Only in extreme examples when faced, for example, with committing murder do we choose martyrdom, preferring death over life.
On Monday evening the holiday of Passover begins. Passover is given to scrupulous observance. We are commanded to rid our homes of hametz, leavened products, and eat only matzah and kosher for Passover foods for the holiday's eight days. One encounters many different levels of observance within the rituals of Passover. Unfortunately at this time of year one also hears statements that are disparaging of other Jews’ observance. “That’s not kosher for Passover. How could you eat corn syrup? I keep Passover for eight days.”
On the holiday that marks our freedom from Egypt and our beginnings as a people there should be room for all manners of observance. Within Judaism there should be room for many different rituals and ways of marking our Jewish identities.
It saddens me that the holiday which celebrates our becoming a people has been transformed into one marked by disparate observances and a fractured community. Why can’t we be one and enjoy this joyous holiday together? On this Passover we should pledge to relearn how to better live together. While the tradition understood the verse “you shall live by them” in individual terms I wish to hear this command as directed to the Jewish people.
My question is: can we still live together—as one people? The mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, is one that should help us to transcend our differences, to look away from our disparate styles and levels of observance, and see instead one people. Love of the Jewish people is one of the guiding principles of my faith.
I must love the Jewish people, despite our differences and disagreements. I must love all the Jewish people. We are not so numerous (14 million worldwide according to the most optimistic of counts) that we can afford to divide ourselves even further. Why must we measure how much matzah or how little bread others eat? Why must we number how many sets of dishes others have? Why must we count how often others pray?
Thousands of years ago, on that first Passover night, we became a Jewish people. This year we must rekindle that oneness. We must reaffirm our love of all Jews. That is far more important than what we eat or don’t eat. That is how the commandments will help us to live again.
Rabbi Leo Baeck, a great 20th century German rabbi and survivor of the Holocaust, wrote: "The Jew knows that the greatest commandment is to live." I would add: “to live together.”