Personal Piety and Social Justice

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Torah reading, Behar-Bechukotai, concludes the Book of Vayikra. The major subject of this Book is the extensive system of Temple Sacrifices which were in effect when the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) stood in its place on the Temple Mount in Yerushalayim. According to the Rambam its current absence is just a temporary pause and with the advent of Moshiach (the Messiah) the Sanctuary will be rebuilt and all the Korbanot (Sacrifices) will be resumed.

A unique feature of Vayikra is the blending of the theme of Temple service with that of ethics and morality. Judaism vehemently refuses to separate the area of personal religiosity from that of moral treatment of one’s fellow human. You can’t be righteous in Synagogue and scandalous in the marketplace.

Some of the most lofty ideals and aspirations which have come to be recognized by the entire world make their appearance in the Book of Vayikra. For example, the obligation to “love thy neighbor as thy self” originates with Judaism. This is such a popular ideal that many Christians believe that it originates with their religion. I once gave a guest lecture to a group of college students in Phoenix, all of whom were Christians. I asked which religion teaches the above principle, and the group responded in unison, “Christianity.” I then asked one of them to read aloud the relevant verse in Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:18). The group was definitely surprised and displayed a new eagerness to hear what I had to say.

Many other high ethical ideals are propounded in this Book. We may not “stand idly by the blood of our brother.” This means that we can’t be a neutral or indifferent bystander. Rather, we are obligated to come to the assistance of those who are in danger, and failure to do so renders us complicit in the taking of their “blood.”

Neither are we permitted to follow the natural instinct to take revenge against those who have wronged us. We may not even bear a grudge, but must confront the wrongdoer and gently rebuke him. The Torah fully accepts that misunderstandings and even hostilities will take place among people. But the objective is to resolve the matter in an intelligent way and restore peace. One has a right to express his grievance and demand redress, but once that has come about, he must be ready to forgive. He is not permitted to just sit back and nurture hatred.

The Book of Vayikra emphasizes the dual nature of the religious experience. One must strive for personal holiness in terms of his relationship with Hashem. This is a purely private affair. He must sanctify himself through prayer, Torah study and the performance of the Mitzvot with focus and mindfulness. His personal connection to G-d is the foundation of his personality and lifestyle and should be clearly manifested in all his dealings with others.

It is just as much a religious requirement to greet others in friendly fashion and to visit the sick as it is to make a Minyan. Embarrassing a person publicly should be regarded as just as bad, if not worse, than eating a cheeseburger. Perhaps the ordinary religious personality does not look at things that way.

The regular Frum (pious) person will recoil and have a violent physical reaction if someone were to offer him a piece of non-kosher food. He might even feel a tangible sense of disgust. But his emotional reaction might not be the same if he walks into a room in which the conversation is alive with liberal doses of slander (read: Lashon HaRa).

The perfected Torah personality has a unique set of values and his emotional responses are not the same as ordinary, unenlightened, individuals. He is very dedicated to the “ritual” which just affects him and no one else. But he is also extremely sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. He does not treat others according to the dictates of his ordinary emotions.

Thus, if he should come upon the animal of his enemy which has fallen beneath its load on some abandoned road, he does not say that the animal’s owner is a bad person who is not deserving of his help. He may feel that way, but he behaves according to the dictates of the Torah. He puts his emotions aside and offers his assistance with a full heart to the person who has wronged him.

The true Torah personality operates according to the ideals which Hashem has revealed in all areas of life, irrespective of his personal emotions in the matter. Judaism may therefore be termed a religion of personal piety and social justice. We should not focus on one to the exclusion of the other. Rather, we should strive to serve Hashem with “all of our heart, all of our soul and all of our might.” May we merit to achieve it.

Shabbat Shalom