Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Walk Article


Achrei Mot-Kedoshim-5775

Rabbi David Walk


            There's a controversy in rabbinic circles (Isn't there always?) about which Haftora to read this week.  Usually when weekly Torah readings are doubled we read the Haftorah from the second parsha, but this week we read from the first.  This makes me happy.  First of all it's shorter, always a cause for joy.  But also because it's from the book of Amos.  I have a special warm spot in my heart for Amos, and not just because of the fifties television show.  My oldest daughter, together with her marvelous husband and six wonderful children, lives in Tekoa, which was his home as well.  It's an enchanting place.  Tekoa sits on the divide between the Judean Hills and the desert.  The vistas are amazing and the harshly beautiful terrain calls for a special breed of people to succeed there.  Amos was just such an individual.  He was one tough cookie.  He declared that he was neither a prophet nor son of one.  He was a simple hard working hand eking out a livelihood as a shepherd and fig farmer.  Nevertheless he presented his message of morality and social justice eloquently about 750 BCE.  He was an admirable and courageous messenger of God.

            The Haftora itself opens with an enigmatic phrase.  Amos addresses the Jewish people as 'like the children of Kush (Ethiopia).'  What does this mean?  The commentaries are split.  Rashi suggests that the message is:  Why should God refrain from punishing the Jews if they continue to act like the descendants Noach, like Kush, instead of the descendants of Avraham.  On the other hand the Malbim (Rav Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879) explains that this term begins a section of comfort and consolation after all the harsh messages of the book.  Amos is telling the Jewish people that they stand out in God's eyes as the black merchants and slaves of Kush stand out in the societies of the Middle East.  No matter where the Jews are exiled, to God they will always be recognizable.  No amount of assimilation can totally eradicate the Jewish spark within us all.

            Let's (at least this year) accept the position of the Malbim.  This brings us to the central question, namely, what is the message of Amos which makes this section relevant to both parshat Achrei Mot and Kedoshim?  Let's deal with Achrei Mot first.  The central idea in the Haftorah is:  And I will bring back the captivity of My people of Israel, and they shall build the wasted cities and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them.  And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be plucked up out of their land which I have given them, says the Lord your God (Amos 9:14-15).  This is the perfect consolation for the scary warning to the Jews at the end of Achrei Mot:  For all these abominations have the men of the land done who were there before you, and the land became defiled. Do none of these things lest the land spew you out when you defile it as it spewed out the nation that was before you. Whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from among his people.  So keep My charge: do not practice any of these abominable customs which were practiced before you and defile yourselves by them. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 18:27:30).  So, our Haftorah is the perfect antidote to the dire warnings in Achrei Mot.  But what does that have to do with Kedoshim?

            In many ways Kedoshim is the most beautiful parsha in our pantheon of readings.  It contains many of the most famous expressions of Jewish morality and ethics.  Contained in our parsha are the following mitzvoth:  the obligation to leave portions of the harvest for the poor, not to withhold wages, not to pervert justice, not to give harmful advice,  to not give preference to a wealthy litigant, not to hate a fellow Jew, to honor Torah scholars, not to embarrass others, not to stand idly by while another is in danger,  not to bear a grudge, to give the benefit of the doubt, and, of course, Rabbi Akiva's favorite, to love your colleague like yourself.  This is very much the heart of Amos' message throughout his book.  He castigates the Jews for believing that rituals can replace kindness and justice.  God is not interested in your Temple service, if you either continue to worship idols or if you continue to oppress those who can't take care of themselves.  His most famous message is:  Let justice run down like waters and righteousness as a mighty and ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

            This brings us back to the Malbim. We Jews should want to stand out.  We should always desire to be counted on by others for kindness, charity and fair play.  This is what God told the Jewish at Mount Sinai: Now if you will obey Me and keep your part of My contract with you, you shall be My own little flock from among all the nations of the earth; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be a kingdom of priests to God, a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).  It's a point of pride that we are often at the forefront of social movements which are concerned for the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden.   And this begins with little acts of kindness and concern for others.  It feels good when you see a Jew help another, maybe give up a seat or allow another to go before them in a line or traffic.  On the other hand it hurts when you see Jews display callous behavior on the street or in traffic, and, sometimes, even in synagogue. I was happy recently to see a congregant offer their regular seat to a guest so they could sit with their host.

            The point of Amos' metaphor is that Jews stand out.  Please, let it be for good.