Torah Reading for Week of March 29 – April 4, 2020
By Rabbi Arthur Levine, ’09
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
The rabbi knew my Hebrew name: Aharon ben Mordecai ha-Levi (Aaron, son of Mordecai, the Levite), and hence my halakhic status for Jewish prayer ritual.
Leader of the small weekday minyan (prayer service) at the ritually-observant Jerusalem shul I often attended, he would call my name from memory for the second — the designated “Levite” – aliyah to pronounce the Torah reading blessings.
So, he must have felt both surprise and consternation when, on an occasion when he officiated at a larger congregation, I mistakenly joined the Kohanim on the bimah to give the Priestly Benediction.
He could have discreetly whispered to me to sit down or to stand apart, since, as a Levite but not a Kohen, I was not eligible to give the blessing. He did not do so. Later, he certainly could have gently discussed the incident with me. But he did not do that, either. I believe that he wished to spare me any embarrassment, even privately. This was much in keeping with Jewish law and ethics.
Even though the ritual sacrifices described in this week’s Torah portion, tzav, have been absent from our tradition since the Second Temple was destroyed nearly two thousand years ago, we can still learn from its procedure. In his book, Ethics from Sinai, Irving Bunim explains that people offered sacrifices for different reasons. Some were obligatory, some were gifts, and some were brought as atonement for sins. In this last category were the hattah (sin-offering), brought for an unintentional transgression; the asham (guilt-offering), brought, for example, for the sin of swearing falsely; and the olah (burnt-offering), sometimes brought for improper thoughts, but it could be brought for other reasons as well, unrelated to sin.
Bunim imagines what might have happened at the Temple. The person making the offering had to be present, to place his hands on the animal of the sacrifice. Then, if Reuben walked into the Temple with his ashram, everyone would know that Reuben had sworn falsely! Let Simeon enter the Temple with his hattah, and all would realize that Simeon had sinned! Surely the Temple would have become a center of unwarranted public humiliation.
Therefore the Torah specifically commands: “In the place where the olah is slaughtered shall the hattah be slaughtered” (Leviticus 6:18); “In the place where they slaughter the olah shall they slaughter the asham” (Leviticus 7:2). Under this system the spectator would never know whether a particular sacrifice was a voluntary offering or something obligatory in expiation of a sin. This is how the Torah sought to protect the dignity and esteem of man.
Our tradition has adopted many similar practices, such as the silent (actually, whispered) Amidah (so that individual confession of sins can be private) (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 32b); designated Torah readers (to not embarrass those unable to read) (Mishnah, Bikurim 3:7); the prohibition of reminding someone of his (or his ancestors’) past misdeeds (Jerusalem Talmud, Yevomot 8:3); and the requirement that food be brought to a house of mourning in plain containers (so as not to embarrass those unable to afford fine objects) (Babylonian Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 27a).
Rabbi Nachum Amsel notes (in his book, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, that, according to the Talmud (Berachot 19b), preserving dignity is so important that one may violate a negative mitzvah for the sake of preserving dignity. He further observes that later authorities ruled that a person may violate any rabbinic (not biblical) injunction in order to preserve dignity (Maimonides, Hilchot Kelayim
10:29). Since most of Jewish practice is rabbinic, not biblical in nature, most practices in Judaism can be violated if doing the mitzvah would necessitate violating a person’s dignity.
Years later, I had another occasion to benefit from the rabbi’s attention to safeguarding the dignity of others and saving them from embarrassment. This time, doing so required quick-thinking, rather than silence. The parish priest from my home community, a good friend, was visiting Jerusalem on a Christian pilgrimage tour, and accompanied me to a minyan. Before it started, I introduced to the rabbi my friend, “Father so-and-so.” I didn’t consider it at the time, but the Father was (and looked) sufficiently older than I to plausibly be my actual father. Even so, he was wearing a tour name-badge identifying him as “Father so-and-so,” and the badge included a prominent Christian symbol. Surely, the rabbi couldn’t help noticing it as they shook hands.
The service proceeded and, as usual, I was called for the second Aliyah. After I recited the concluding blessing, the rabbi called my friend – whom he apparently did think was my father — for the third Aliyah! Fortuitously standing next to him, I was able to whisper to the rabbi about my friend’s identity as he walked the short distance to the bimah. Without hesitation, the rabbi announced that it was his honor to welcome my friend, a Catholic priest, as a distinguished guest, and to give him the opportunity to see an open Torah and witness, up close, a traditional reading.
Not only did this spare everyone embarrassment, my friend was delighted (both by the experience and at the story he subsequently shared with his congregation and colleagues back home)! Nor, as with the previous incident, did the rabbi mention it to me later.
Thus, we learn from our tradition and from those who strive to follow its teachings. Whether biting our tongue when inclined to speak, or acting when we are inclined to remain silent or passive, it’s our responsibility to safeguard others from shame and embarrassment.