Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Measure of Holiness

My father, of blessed memory, was born in Leipzig. He and his large family emigrated to the United States just prior to the outbreak of World War Two. He would often tell me how he could not comprehend the anti-semitism that sprouted in Germany. He would say "Our neighbors were the finest people. And so gracious to us. How could they have turned into haters. How could they who were friends become people of whom we needed to be afraid?"

Indeed, how did Hitler and the Nazi machine turn the whole populace of Germany into anti-semites and collaborators with the evil regime?
Germany was the most civilized of countries. Its people were cultured and, up until the rise of Nazism, tolerant.

If one studies the process the answer is clear. It happened in stages. First the Nazis used propaganda to turn the Jews into 'others', to dehumanize us, to make us radically different in the eyes of the average German. Once we were seen as no longer like them, it was easy for the German to hate us and even collaborate in our demise.

The nature of human beings is that in order to cultivate hate we make the 'other' a "stranger". We focus on how they are less than us, on how their manners and ways are different. Have you ever noticed how when we who are Caucasian hear of a tragedy in Europe, say a flood or plane crash, we will feel a sense of sadness and solidarity with the mourning survivors. Yet a tragedy of much greater proportion can occur in Africa amongst Blacks and it causes little emotional impact. Just look at the Western societies limited reaction to the horrific situation in Darfur. Even when we do react it tends to be a response to the crisis, like an earthquake, rather than to the people and their story.

All hate and detachment begins with a focus on difference. All love commences with a recognition of how we are one and the same.

The Torah in this weeks parsha makes clear that being G-d's Holy People does not give us license to separate from others and their plight. Yes, last week we read of our receiving the Torah and of our uniqueness in destiny and purpose. But that inspiration must not serve to cause us intolerance and hate of those not like us.

We begin the reading with of this week with the Jew who sells himself into slavery. We are not permitted to mistreat him. On the contrary he has rights and privilges. He is not to be seen as 'other'. Even the non-Jewish slave is talked about. He too has rights protected by the Torah. Should the owner abuse him their are consequences. The Torah goes on to talk about our responsibility not to cause hurt, emotional or otherwise to the convert. Indeed we are charged to love the 'ger'. The Talmud teaches that more than 40 times in the Torah there is reference to our need to care for the welfare of the convert.

And if that was not enough the Torah tells us this week "Do not cook the goat in it mother's milk." From this we derive all the laws of separation of milk from meat. Many of the commentaries understood the law as teaching us sensitivity even to animals. They too have feelings. While we are permitted to eat meat it would be insensitive to cook the meat we killed for our pleasure in the milk its mother produced to give it life. And their are other laws that seem to promote the same sensitivity to animals. The law that requires us to cover the blood from fowl or non-domesticated animals we kill to eat may well have been designed to engender in us a sense of shame that in order for us to have our needs met we took a life, even of an animal. Moreover we are forbidden from eating the 'chailev', the best fats from domesticated animals we prepare to eat. Perhaps this is meant to teach us a similar lesson. Yes you are permitted to eat meat, but you must never become so callous as to think of the animal as a plant, totally for your use, and lose sympathy for it as a live being.

In all this the Torah is teaching that the measure of our holiness is our capacity to care for that which is different from us and to treat the 'other' with respect and consideration. To be holy is to find G-d in everything and everyone.

Our holiness may separate us and make us unique in character and soul. But that same holiness, to the extent we live and feel it will give us reason to find a common love and identity with all G-d's creation.

Shabbat Shalom

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