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Pesach 1, Jewish Values
March 26, 2013
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my sermons. I hope you enjoy reading them. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

Let's begin with a story.

On one Pesach eve, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev took a walk with his servant in the streets of the city. He met a peasant, one of the tax smugglers, and asked him: Do you have contraband that was brought from across the border?

Of course! All you want.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continued on his way, and met a Jew whom he asked: Do you have chametz in your house?

Now? answered the Jew in shock. It is the eve of Pesach! Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continued on his way and asked another Jew the same question. He answered:

Rabbi, are you crazy? It's almost Pesach!

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak raised his eyes to Heaven and proclaimed:

Master of the Universe! How much do Your people Israel cling to your commandments and how careful they are to obey them. The Czar of Russia, the mighty Kin, posts police and tax collector without number in every corner of the country, and on the borders of his huge kingdom. They guard that no one smuggles merchandise without paying tax. Nevertheless much merchandise is smuggled into the country with no difficulty.

And you, Master of the Universe, wrote in Your Torah, "No chametz may be found. . .in all your territory" [Exodus 13:7], and yet you place not police or soldiers to guard us - and on the eve of Pesach no chametz is found in any Jewish home!

The story is so typical of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. He is renowned for finding the spark of goodness and devotion in the individual Jew, and as a model for such generosity of spirit, I commend this story entirely. Yet I want to suggest to you that this story especially contains within it the seeds of two very destructive notions that may or may not have been R. Levi Yitzchak's intention, but have certainly played out that way in our time, and especially among people whose understanding of the demands of Jewish life place ritual integrity - let's even expand that and say Jewish affirmations - above a morally admirable standard of life.

Who is the first guy in the story? He is a black marketeer, a tax thief, someone who seeks to steal from the government what they claim and from the people what they earned. He is someone who encourages people to circumvent the law, not for the sake of civil disobedience, rather for the sake of his livelihood. He promises them things they might not otherwise get, some of them necessities and others luxuries, with a sly wink and a knowledge that they dare not reveal the source of their good fortune lest they be accused of aiding and abetting.

If you think I am overstating the case, I beg to differ. That's the entire point of Levi Yitzchak's praise of the Jew. He is diligent and stringent about observing the laws of Pesach in spite of the fact that no one is looking for violators, no one is going to put him in jail for sneaking a piece of bread. The contrast, whether in reality or for the sake of the story, is that the violation of civil law (and I hasten to note that this civil law is enacted by non-Jews, and that it is observed primarily out of fear rather than respect), of purchasing contraband, is not considered a violation of piety. And it is, of course, a peasant, a non-Jew, who is the agent of immorality.

As an illustration of the immeasurable compassionate and generous spirit of the rabbi, that contrast is essential. But as a lesson about Jewish values, it ought to horrify us.

We were freed from Egypt to travel to Sinai and enter there into a covenant with God. At a minimum, that covenant included ten commandments, and nine of them have nothing to do with ritual observance. They are about character, about moral behavior, about integrity and about respecting the dignity and property of other people. At a maximum, the 613 commandments in the Torah demand of us both action and restraint in realms that range from what we eat - what we put into our mouths - to how we speak - what comes out of our mouths; from honest weights and measure - giving people the full worth of their purchases - to caring for the poor - giving people the full complement of their needs.

Believing that moral conduct is less Jewish than ritual conduct is, plain and simple, a denigration of Torah. And playing the game that, on the one hand, excuses the subversion of proper moral behavior because it is not in the context of Torah law, while, on the other hand, expands the corpus of ritual law because we need to build a fence around the Torah, is a denigration of God.

Here's an example of just such excess. A very well-respected scholar - I won't name him because I won't add to his shame - gave a lesson to a group of rabbis that included a discussion of the allegations of physical and sexual abuse in the orthodox community. He condemned abuse in no uncertain terms. But he urged caution about reporting such abuse to the authorities. And why? Because the perpetrator might go to jail. Now, he says, there is nothing in the tradition that prohibits a Jew from going to jail for a crime, but there is jail and then there is jail. Federal prisons are okay, he said, because a Jew can get glatt kosher food and study Talmud every day there. But in a state prison, if the warden takes a disliking to you, he could put you in a cell "with a schvartze or a Muslim, a Black Muslim who wants to kill you." Those are his words, I must tell you, not mine.

We should all aspire to be like R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in our acceptance of Jews who might sin in one realm but hold on dearly to Jewish life in another. Such an open heart is an important quality for a rabbi, a teacher, a leader of Jews.

But celebrating the devotion of someone because he observes a strictly kosher Pesach without asking if he sets a standard for moral behavior as well - that misses the point of the story.

There is a story in the Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 1:4) about a pimp by the name of Pentekaka. His name, Pentekaka, means "extremely bad" in Greek, understand to be "five sins" by the Sages. Rabbi Abbahu encounters him after dreaming about who has enough merit to plead for rain during a season of drought. He asks the pimp what he does, and Pentekaka delineates five sins he commits in his work. "Have you ever done anything of merit?" asks R. Abbahu.

"Once," he replies, "a beautiful young woman came to see me, sobbing, and asked to be in my employ. Her husband had been taken captive for ransom and, owning nothing of value, she was prepared to sell her honor to earn the ransom. I sold the beds of my girls, as well as the bedclothes, and gave her the money she needed, saying: Go redeem him and do not sin."

Pentekaka prayed for rain and was answered.

It is the same story, 1500 years older. What is remarkable is the uncharacteristic nature of this devotional act that reveals compassion and generosity of spirit in Pentekaka - not Rabbi Abbahu. He does not protest his piety on the basis of attendance in shul or his avoidance of linen and wool admixtures. In fact, he does not protest his piety at all. He answers the questions: Have you ever done anything of merit? And the answer is: I kept an innocent person from sin.

If you think back six months or perhaps ahead six months you will recall the words of Isaiah that we include as the haftarah of Yom Kippur morning. "Is this the fast I desire?" the prophet asks in God's name. The weeping and wailing, the sackcloth and ashes, the sacrifices and offerings - God finds them false and offensive if suffering and immorality abound in the land. "Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take the homeless into your home - this is the fast I desire," says God.

You know I want you to do mitzvot. You won't hear me say not to light Shabbat candles, not to check your mezuzot, not to keep kosher, not to be strict about Pesach like the guy in the Chassidic story. But do not think that you can rest easy with Levi Yitzchak's implied blessing if you make some ritual your specialty, if you put on tefillin each morning or shake a lulav during Sukkot, yet neglect your responsibility to be a good person, a good citizen and an honest human being, respecting the inherent dignity of others and eradicating the prejudice in your heart that makes some people lesser than others on the basis of race, religion, economic standing or politics.

I admire R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, I really do. He was a man who had his own deep struggles and he certainly held in his soul a devotion to finding the best in every Jew that he could. He was the defender of a generation of Jews before God, and he left a legacy of stories which instruct and challenge us today. But he doesn't ask the Jew, "Do you have contraband in your house?"

This story, with what it implies may not be abused by inspiring learned men to be casual bigots, by allowing morally compromised behavior to be excused by ritual stringency or even by elevating the love we should show for every Jew above the responsibility we have to prevent bad behavior, most especially when others suffer by that neglect.

Do you want to know what freedom means? It is not mere liberation; it is the placing of personal responsibility into the hands of the individual. And if we avoid those responsibilities, we may be let loose, but we are not really free.

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