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Peter J. Rubinstein
On Justice (Parashat B’har–B’chukotai)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  May 18, 2012

As you can tell, this is somewhat unusual for us to not only have a d’var Torah between two aliyot, but to actually have two aliyot.  There are reasons for it, not the least of which is that tonight we’re celebrating several, as you’ve seen, magnificent occasions. 

The fact is that in some way, for clergy, this is also a special Shabbat since today, this Shabbat, is the last of the readings of the book Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, and I think as you’ve heard actually said before, that most rabbis will breathe a sigh of relief as we move out of these laws which are both sometimes complicated and sometimes incomprehensible.  And we enter next week the book of the B’midbar, the book of Numbers.


This last portion of this section of the Torah, Vayikra, is a combined section.  As you heard Kayla read from B’chukotai, and I just wanted to spend a minute speaking about B’har, which is the preceding portion, though the two of them are combined  in certain years, as this year, at the end.


This actually double portion demonstrates an overriding concern for matters of justice and fairness, although it may not be in words that we fully comprehend.  There is one phrase that is in this Torah portion.  You will know the mistranslation of it very well.  It’s “U’k’ratem d’ror ba-aretz lechol yoshveha.


As I mentioned last night at our annual meeting, this particular verse is emblazoned in my memory because, Halle, this is the verse that I had to preach on my senior sermon, a moment that remains indelibly etched and perhaps scarred in my recollection.


The translation that you usually know is “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.”  It is the verse that is on the Liberty Bell.  But it is pretty clear that the founders of this country who decided in whatever way they did that those words should be on the Liberty Bell weren’t fully comprehending the impact of those words.


For those words better translated would be “Proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”  And when they were talking about release, they were talking literally about release.  It was freeing indentured slaves who had been needing to work as slaves because they owed debts.  It was an attempt to combat creeping financial disparity between the rich and the poor and the creditor and the debtor.  It was about returning property taken as a result of non-payment of debts or in fact eviction due to foreclosure.


But after that law, the Torah goes a step further into the realm of business transactions.  Because they understood that as much as we would say,  “tzedek, tzedek tirdof”:  “justice, justice will you pursue.”  It was not only a matter of conceptual justice, but it had to be justice that was built into the very fiber of everyday transactions.


And so the Torah portion says in verse 14 whether in buying or selling,  “al tanu ish et achiv”—whether you buy or sell property to your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another is the way the translation reads in the Chumash that you’ll be reading from.  But as another translation makes even more explicit a commandment, it says don’t cheat each other.


The Torah forbids any level of ona’ah, cheating—it was considered cheating if the price for which you were selling an article was more than one-sixth of the inherent value of that item.  It was considered gouging.  There was in the law in an inherent sense that in matters of business, cheating was represented in over-extending credit to people who would never be able to pay back the loan.  Cheating was in overpricing goods, or even cheating was considered getting the best deal from a seller due to the dire circumstances in which the seller was finding him or herself.


This concept of justice was about fairness, if not equivalence.  And the success of one person could not be at the cost and degradation of another person.  We are, after all, as the Torah makes abundantly clear, all God’s people, and we are interconnected.


But there was another kind of cheating, not about material goods, it was ona’at d’varim.  It was cheating with words.  In fact, it was considered even more onerous than cheating in business because in business, there could be restitution.  But when cheating with words, there was no way to give back what you had taken from another person.


There was a circumstance when a repentant or somebody who had done wrong was reminded of their former misdeeds in order simply to insult or if somebody was ill or in pain or had suffered a personal loss and the response to it was “Well in some way it was all your fault,”—that was considered ona’at d’varim, cheating with words.


Generally, it was presumed and forbidden to hurt another person’s feelings with words, which was considered as I said, a greater sin than cheating in transactions.  And it was considered ona’at d’varim even if you enter a store and begin to ask the price with no intention of buying.  For that was stealing the hope of the seller.


So in our tradition we are attuned to the finer points of behavior.  We are commanded in the details to be aware and wary of our inclination to do mischief.  To hurt someone else.  Or to commit wrongdoing.  It is about standing guard against the disregard or insensitivity to others.  That’s what was meant by “justice.”


Kindness, decency, and the ability to understand was in fact what I had in mind when I thought about the confirmation class that tonight we consecrate after services.  And we celebrate their confirmation on Monday, May 28th.  It’s the Monday of Memorial Day weekend—you’ll know it when it comes.  And we would hope you would all be here to support and celebrate with this class.  But if this class is about anything, it is about the willingness of each member of the class to be kind and caring and giving and forgiving.


This is a class that embodies sensitivities and decency and inherent goodness.  It is how they extend themselves to each other.  And to our people.  And to this synagogue.  And to other children in our Religious School.


This is a class that does us all proud.  And so, it is with great pride that I invite them to the Torah for the second aliyah.

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