MANY PEOPLE are critical of the Book of Leviticus which we began reading this morning. It is the most versatile and complex book in the Torah, full of contrasts and extremes. About one-half of it is devoted to korbanot, the laws of sacrifices, the functions of Priests and Levites, and the regulations that deal with diet-the things that we are permitted to eat and those that are forbidden. Then there are sublime chapters and sidrot which contain the basic ethical doctrines of Judaism. They include such gems as "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. 19:18), and the verse which was later inscribed on the Liberty Bell, "And ye shall proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Ibid. 25.10).

For years I have been teaching Chumash to a group of men and women in my Congregation. After covering the beautiful stories in the Book of Genesis, followed by the moving drama of the enslavement, redemption, receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai, the building of the Tabernacle and the holy vessels as told in the Book of Exodus, I sensed a sort of spiritual let-down on the part of my audience when I began to study with them the first half of Sefer Vayikra. In answer to a pointed and critical observation by one of that group, I delivered a lengthy explanation, the gist of which I would like to share with you now.

Look at the world today, I said. Take a good look at it and see. Nations claim that they have adopted most of the ethical concepts and teachings enunciated in the Bible. Everyone talks about freedom and justice, mercy and brotherly love. But talking about them is one thing and living them is another. The word democracy has become a byword in our times. Communist nations call themselves "Peoples' Democracies," when it is common knowledge that the citizens of those lands live under tyranny; that those who dare criticize the government are thrown into jail, put into an institution for the insane, or are exiled. Everyone speaks in praise of honesty and fair play. Why then is there so much fraud, falsehood and duplicity in the United Nations and in the affairs of our own Government? The answer is simple: principles are one thing and living in accordance with them is another. On all sides life presents us with ample proof that great declarations and noble doctrines do not necessarily assure high-minded conduct or decent behavior.

To avoid this pitfall the Torah introduced the discipline of the mitzvah. By observing special rituals and commandments the lofty teachings of Judaism are brought home to every Jewish heart. No amount of talking and preaching about the ideal of freedom can do as much as observing the Seder in a traditional manner on Pesach night. And I mean a Seder with all the trimmings-matzo, wine, maror, charoset and afikomon; not only the kneidlach but also the Hagaddah and all the lovely chants. No amount of prattling about love of humanity can compare with a simple act of generosity when we invite a needy stranger to our home for dinner, or help a neighbor fix a flat tire, or respond generously to an appeal for funds for a worthy cause.

A few months ago I had the following personal experience. It was Rosh Chodesh and the morning service was longer than usual. I had an appointment, and I was about to rush out of the shule. Just then a poor old man approached me and asked to be taken to a Subway station. He was exhausted and couldn't walk the dozen blocks. There was no one else to take him, so I did. If I had not davened in my talit and tefillin that morning, I am not sure whether I would have bothered driving that poor fellow to the station. After all, I had a good excuse. I was late and people were waiting for me. But I had just finished talking to God, and I just couldn't get myself to say no to that old man. I was late for my appointment, and I overheard a woman say, "Rabbis don't care; they're always late!" But it was worth it!

The laws of korbanot and other rituals remind the Jew that without a spirit of sacrifice and dedication little can be achieved. One cannot be a good Jew or a decent person merely by claiming to be one. One has to perform acts of sacrifice and devotion in order to be governed by their disciplines and become imbued with their symbolic significance.

At a banquet of a well-known Yeshiva, a candidate for high public office was the guest speaker. As proof of the worthiness of the man, the Chairman of the affair in his introductory remarks spoke of the outstanding qualities of the guest, and since it was a Jewish audience, he told the people that the honorable gentleman was a member of a prominent congregation. The speaker rose and laughingly remarked that even though he doesn't observe any of the rituals of Judaism nor attend synagogue services, he considers himself to be a good Jew. There was neither shame nor regret in his declaration; it sounded like a boast. What was even worse, was the way the Jewish audience reacted to his statement. There was a ripple of laughter, and at the end of his harangue he was applauded. I thought to myself: suppose this man would have said something like that at a political rally of his party-Republican or Democratic-would his appeal for votes be heeded? Who would want to work for the election of a political slacker? But a religious slacker who has the gall to boast about his laxity as a Jew, is received by our people with courtesy and warmth, instead of with derision and contempt.

That man and many of his listeners are the products of a fallacious philosophy that stressed the ethical concepts of the Torah and discarded the ritualistic and ceremonial elements of Judaism. This was the basic stand of the early teachers of Reform Judaism. Thank Heaven that a number of the modern exponents of Reform are slowly bringing back some of the practices and rites of our faith. Because Jews do not feel comfortable to daven bareheaded, the yarmelke is making its way back to the Reform Temple. Some of their rabbis wear a talisel at Sabbath and Holiday services. Let us hope that more and more observances and rituals will be brought back to the Temples and homes of all Jews, for religion without mitzvot and korbanot is empty and dry. It cannot survive.

Rabbi Akiba expressed this thought in a striking manner. He said, Masoret seyag letorah, "Tradition is a fence that safeguards the Torah" (Ethics 3:17). He looked upon the basic precepts of Judaism as upon a beautiful garden which contained lovely plants and fragrant flowers. One cannot leave a precious garden oif hefker, without protection and care. So the sages insisted that a sturdy fence of traditions be built around the garden-a shield of rituals and ceremonies to guard the priceless flowers and trees, and to assure the continued existence of the garden.

Someone has pointed out that the Hebrew word employed by Rabbi Akiba is seyag, which means a hedge. The usual word for a fence is geder. The difference between a fence and a hedge is this: a fence can be made of any material, for the major purpose of a fence is to protect. That is why some fences are ugly. The hedge not only protects but beautifies. It protects the trees and flowers against those who would pluck them, or vandalize them, but it also makes the garden attractive. Rabbi Akiba said that tradition is a hedge for the Torah. It protects the lovely blossoms of Judaism and also adorns them.

That is one area in which we, traditional Jews, are often deficient. I urge that we make a concerted effort to shield and protect the garden of Judaism and to display the splendor and fragrance of its contents for all to admire and revere.

Back Page Contents Next Page