After reading a number of my recent articles, a friend commented that my writing seems to promote a double standard. It was suggested that I often show tolerance to those who are less observant, while scrutinizing the actions of my more “observant” coreligionists and criticizing their laxity in social mitzvoth. If we are all equally commanded by God, then who gave me the moral justification to judge people with different lenses? Shouldn’t everyone be judged equally? In regards to religious matters, either my myopia favors the liberal, or conversely I focus my judgment on conservative rigidity. Is this a reflection or an illusion?
My friend is absolutely correct. I am guilty as charged. However, I believe that I am not the only one whose position may be problematic. The Torah portion over the past two weeks provides validation, if not obligation, for having higher expectations of the more pious. A verse in last week’s portion states: Makeh ish vamet, mot yumat – If a person is killed, the murderer is put to death. This verse is immediately followed by: Umekallel aviv v’emo, mot yumat – If one curses his parents, he is put to death. The Talmud teaches that the punishment for murder is death by strangulation, whereas the punishment for cursing your parents is more severe – death by stoning. The Abarbanel explains that although murder is a heinous crime, the perpetrator of the crime may have been oblivious to Judaism, God, and the commandments. In his world, man mirrored the animal kingdom and murder was merely part of the survival of the fittest culture. Man lacked a moral compass and without torah to guide him he was able to justify his unconscionable decisions. However, one who curses his parents is held to a much higher standard. The punishment of cursing another person is predicated on uttering the name of God during the curse while also beseeching God to be an accomplice in the crime. Therefore, it certainly deserves a harsher punishment. An individual who has a sincere belief in God’s ultimate power, yet fails to realize the hypocrisy of ignoring his tenets, violates the law and is reprehensible in the eyes of God.
This week’s Torah portion states: V’asu et h’aron – and you should build an ark made of wood that is clad with gold on the outside as well as the inside. The Talmud deduces from the fact that the inside of the ark has to be compatible with the outside that Kol talmud chacham sh’ain tocho k’varo – any sage whose inside (true self) does not mirror his outer appearance (i.e., he is insincere) is not really a sage. Other scholars are even harsher and state that if someone’s religious life is insincere, he is an abomination to Judaism.
The word ark in Hebrew is Aron and is derived from the root word ohr – light. The luminary who is steeped in Torah (also from the root word for light) must be a person who leads a life in which his outer behavior matches his inner soul. Thankfully, I have witnessed numerous scholars whose lives are virtuous and represent all that is precious about a god fearing person. They are shining examples of how Judaism can and should be embodied. However, there are too many examples of those who live lives of contradiction and duality of purpose. This week there was a story of Rabbis who physically and violently coerced men into granting their wives a get. At first glance they had my sympathy until I realized they also tried to coerce a woman and her family into handing over the crown jewels. They used a mask of Godliness as a means of exploitation. Their tocho – their inner action – was not a mirror image of their outer manifestation.
What can we do; what should we do? First and foremost we must recognize that naivety and sincerity are no excuse for lack of due diligence. We should realize that corrupt people may masquerade as religious individuals for a number of reasons. Perhaps they are trying to counterbalance their misdeeds with acts (but not feeling) of religious observance. Or perhaps they are attempting to enable their subterfuge, or quell feelings of guilt. Torah states: V’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham – They should build for me a sanctuary and I should dwell within. The commentaries note that the word li – me, indicates that the motivation for building a sanctuary must be pure and may not be motivated by self-aggrandizement or personal considerations. The use of the word Betocham is interesting because the wording is Betocham –in you and Betocham – in it. Perhaps the sanctuary that we are meant to erect is our own selves. We are to create within ourselves a permanent dwelling place for God. If we wear God on our sleeves but not in hearts then are we really fulfilling the commandment as it was intended?
Thus, guilty I am and guilty I will remain. Yet I dismiss any acceptance of wrongdoing and wear my guilty status with pride. Indeed, I may even consider it a badge honor. If demanding higher expectations became the dress code of Judaism, our religion would be better served. The ark which we are all commanded to build would be a beacon of hope for humanity.
Rabbi Jack Engel
PS: Besides eating hamentashen, matanot l’evyonim – gifts to poor people – is one of the mitzvot of Purim day. For the past few years we have organized that all money collected for this mitzvah is handed out on Purim day in Israel to deserving families to ensure their Purim is a memorable occasion. For more information or to participate in this most important mitzvah please see the rabbi.