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Metzora 5782     April 9, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     Jewish Law is called halacha, a Hebrew word meaning “the path” and it is designed to be the path where we can walk to practice our Judaism. Law is an important part of human society. Law is the way we can understand what our responsibilities are to each other and what we can expect from others to help us live our lives. Jewish Law is no different. If we want to practice our Judaism, we have to know what is expected of us and what we can expect from others.

     Experts in legal theory, however, note that the law can never fully account for all possible human actions. Laws are particularly good at keeping people from doing things that are wrong or bad. The law is not as good at telling people what they should do or telling them to be “good.” In Jewish Law, we can command someone to perform a specific deed, but we cannot describe every possibility, so we cannot command specific actions in every circumstance. How are we supposed to decide if it is better to light Shabbat candles late or not light them at all? Are the candles more important than time, or is time more important than the candles? And does it matter how late we are in lighting Shabbat candles? Maybe we should light fewer candles when we are late to light them, or maybe we should get a non-Jew to light them? Or maybe we can light them in an unusual manner when we are late in our candle lighting? It will take more than reading the Halacha to fully understand what we need or want to know.

     The Talmud records a question brought to the great sage Hillel when Passover began on a Saturday night. With the Temple still standing people had to bring their family’s goat to the Temple to be slaughtered so they could take it home and roast it for their family seder on Shabbat. But how could it be slaughtered if they could not carry the knife for the slaughter on Shabbat? Hillel did not know the answer, but he replied, “The people will know what to do. Look and see what they are doing.” That Saturday before Pesach, the people took their knives and slid them into the wool of the goat or sheep they were bringing so that they did not carry the knife, the animal was carrying it. “That is right!” said Hillel, “Now I remember that was the correct law!”

     We see something similar in our Parsha, Metzora, this week. A homeowner finds a discolored stain in the plaster of her walls. Is it leprosy of a house? What should she do? She takes her suspicions to the High Priest so he can come a look at it. He is the expert, but the stain may not be a clear indication and he might have to come back in a couple of weeks to see if it is spreading. The question is, who gets this Mitzvah? Who is responsible for the halacha of leprosy in the walls of a house? Is it the High Priest who declares the stain to be pure or impure? Or is it the homeowner who raised the suspicion in the first place? Rabbi Aviva Richman, who has been trying to understand these complicated laws in Parshiot Tazria and Metzora, sees an important dance taking place that represents the foundation of Halacha, Jewish law, she writes:                       

      “If we think of halakhah as a bridge between our lives and divine will, we see from this verse that this encounter is rooted in our subjective experiences and grows from our decision to reach from there towards God. The halakhic system at its core is not really about obeying religious authority, it is about claiming agency and taking initiative to frame one’s life through interface with Torah…”

     Here is an example from American law. If someone is selling us something we suspect is stolen property, what is our responsibility? Are the police responsible for finding stolen goods or do we have a responsibility to report our suspicions to the police? The police have the expertise to determine if the object has been stolen or not, or they can say, “I don’t know” and keep the seller under observation to see where the goods being sold are coming from. There is no law that forces us to report our suspicions. There is no law against acting suspicious. But if we are determined to live in a society ruled by law, we have to sometimes report our suspicions to the legal authorities.

     The purpose of Jewish law is to bring us closer to God; to bring more of God into our life; to live our lives by religious values. It is possible to find a rabbi who will tell someone what they should do with every minute of their lives. There are people who will not do anything that is not endorsed by their Rabbi. But Judaism recognized that this approach draws a person really close to being in a cult. A cult is where we no longer have any responsibilities, and the cult leader tells us what we must or must not do.

     Judaism is adamant that every person has free will. Not even God can make us do something we do not want to do. We have to choose to observe Halacha and we have to choose how we will obey it. During the Renaissance, rabbis determined that women following the tradition of covering their heads in modesty, could not use fancy wigs to cover their heads since that undermined the whole idea of modesty. Women ignored them and to this day, religious women still can cover their heads with wigs. Rabbis knew for decades that smoking cigarettes was bad for our health and endangering our health is a forbidden by Jewish law. Yet cigarettes were allowed to be smoked for a century, mostly because the Rabbis themselves were smokers.

     Are Jews therefore allowed to ignore halachic authorities? Does this mean we can just decide for ourselves what Jewish laws to obey and which to ignore? Does this mean that our own autonomy can overrule religious authority? Rabbi Richman goes on to say that this is not a battle between lay people and their rabbis. It is a dance, where both sides are reaching for the same goals. She writes:

     “Rather than a battle between liberal autonomy and religious authority, the picture becomes one of mutual contingency. An individual can trust their intuition, yet at the same time have a very clear sense of the limits of their knowledge. A sage can have experience and training, yet at the same time be aware they are not a full expert in the particulars of this individual’s experience. When these two stances encounter each other, there is a possibility of transformative relationship.”

     We are fooling ourselves if we think the battle is between Jews and halachic deciders. A marriage does not work if the two parties to the union are staring down each other and denying that their partner has any right to tell them what to do. A good marriage has both partners side by side, looking to the future and discussing together the best ways to meet their goals in life. Halacha is not a contest between Jews and rabbis. What Halacha is trying to do is to help us find our way to live a holy life. To live a life that will bring us closer to God. To live a life by rules that are designed to spiritually raise us up so that every action we take has meaning not only in our life but meaning in the way the world is unfolding.

     The High Priest does not make rounds to everyone’s home to see if there are any stains on their walls that might make their homes impure. They rely on homeowners who see something suspicious and need to know if it will impede their striving for a holy life. And the homeowners rely on the High Priest to put his personal feelings about non priests aside and judge the situation fairly. As we learned from the confirmation hearings for our new Supreme Court justice, it is not about how many homes the priest in the past decided which are pure or which are impure, it is about the case right in front of his eyes at this moment. Is this house I am seeing today, is it pure or impure?

     No one else can decide if we are holy or not. We have to look at our lives like a homeowner looks at his walls and see if we need professional intervention or not. We can delude ourselves and believe that we have more understanding about halacha than we do. Or we can decide that finding the right path forward means we need to bring in a professional and get meaningful advice.

     I received a simple email this week. It asked, “Does Pesach end my Sheloshim?” It is a simple question of Halacha. What does the law say? What are the rules about Sheloshim, so I know when I have fulfilled my obligation, when I have fulfilled my responsibility to my parents and to God? When have I fully honored the dead and allowed God to begin to heal my broken heart? The halacha is clear on this point. The holiday of Pesach does end Sheloshim. How can we suspend our mourning for a holiday and then just pick up where we left off? After the holiday it will be time to begin to enter the next phase of our mourning. To re-enter the obligations of our life and begin to heal from our loss.

     But there is another part of this question that as a Rabbi I have to consider. This person not only wants to know what his obligations are, he wants to know if he can be whole again. Can he find his way back to God? What relationship with God will he have after Sheloshim is over and when will that relationship begin? As a Rabbi, I will never know what hurt and pain are in that man’s heart. I could imagine what it might feel like, but I will never know what is on his mind and what is in his heart until he emails me the question, “Does Pesach end Sheloshim?” It is his need to find the holy in his life that prompts the question and I have to take that into account when I sit down to reply to the email. Yes, Sheloshim ends. Yes, the time has come to begin to look to the future again. Yes, the hurt will not end but God is the healer of broken hearts and now you can expect to begin to experience that healing. You will be whole again. God still loves you. God still cares about you because you still care about God.

     If we want to know where we can find God, then ask the question. Where can I find God? And we will discover that God is already looking for us. My role as Rabbi is not to tell you want to do, or what does Halacha require? My most important duty is to help you discover the holiness of God within yourself. And if you cannot find it, then ask a question and I can help find the way.

     May God always be near to us, in times of pain and hurt and in times of joy and gladness and may we always find our way to bask in the warm glow of God’s holiness as we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784