Achrei-Mot/Kedoshim – Charity or Justice?

Where does charity end and justice begin?

I’m remembering back to when I was a student at Hillel Torah Day School – a modern Orthodox k-8 school in Skokie, IL, before Yom Kippur all the students gather in the multi-purpose room to do Kapparot.  (My memory is a little vague here, I can’t say for sure if this was an annual event, or a one-time “experience”.) There was a man with a long beard, dressed only in black and white.  His appearance wasn’t unusual to us – none of our fathers dressed that way, but some of our teachers did.  What was unusual was the live chicken he held in his arms.  And he took that poor chicken and swung it slowly in a circle, and as each child passed under the chicken he recited, in Hebrew, on our behalf:

This is our exchange, this is our atonement, this chicken will go to death, and we will go to a good, long, peaceful life”

The chicken, we were told, would later become dinner for a family that otherwise would not have enough food to eat.

This week we read a double Torah portion, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim.  The first, Achrei Mot, describes a much older Yom Kippur ritual that has not been practiced since the destruction of the Temple in the first century, but we still retell every year in words on Yom Kippur.  Rather than a chicken, the ancient ritual required two goats.  The rabbis taught that the two goats should be as identical as possible.  The High Priest would cast lots, and based on the lots one goat would be killed as a sacrifice to God.  The other goat would be led out to the wilderness to be set free.

For years, I casually thought of this scapegoat ritual as an ancient version of the kapparot with its swinging chicken.  But it turns out, that was just sloppy thinking.  A ritual is meant to affect some kind of emotional understanding in the participant, and these two rituals point in opposite directions.  

The language of the kaparot is clear – the chicken is replacing the sinner, absorbing his punishment for him.  This chicken will die, so that I may live.  I can’t say that as a middle school student passing underneath a miserable chicken I felt anything other than pity and a little disgus.  But I think what I was meant to feel was a sense of dread – that the chicken, about to die, could have been me.

With scapegoats, it was different.  The goat that died was a sacrifice, in Hebrew korban, from the root Karov,  it means to literally to bring close, as in to come close to God. I hope vegetarians will forgive me for saying this, but there’s a sense in the text that the goat that was killed was being elevated, being brought close to God.  He was not being punished.  Only after the first goat was killed, then the High Priest placed his hand on the other goat, and confessed the sins of the people. The sins were carried off by the goat that was set free.

In the long history of Judaism, Kapparot is a relatively recent ritual.  And it has always been controversial, for different reasons.  Today, as awareness of animal suffering has pervaded the general culture  in a way that it had not 30-40 years ago, it is very hard for me to imagine that Hillel Torah – or any modern Orthodox school – is still doing Kapparot. 

 The scapegoat is so ancient, it’s really not clear what it meant to the people who actually observed it.  It’s very curious to me.  What stirrings of the soul were these two goats  meant to provoke?

I’d like to sit with that question for a few minutes.  I want to jump now to the second Torah portion that’s read today, Kedoshim.   It opens:

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You must be holy, for I, Ado-nai your God, am holy.

What does it mean to be holy like God?  The Torah doesn’t leave it up to guesswork.  It spells out a long list of mitsvot, called the Holiness Code.Right off the bat – the very next verse after the commandment to be holy – is 

אִ֣ישׁ אִמּ֤וֹ וְאָבִיו֙ תִּירָ֔אוּ וְאֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ

A person must revere their mother and father, and guard my Shabbat.

In one short verse – maintain the family structure, and give structure to the endless flow of time.  Boom.  Make your small world an ordered one.  Then verse after verse, more mitsvot to give structure to our social lives, emotional lives and business lives.  Don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t hold a grudge, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind or curse the deaf. 

In the midst of Kedoshim’s long list of don’t, comes one immensely powerful “do”.  Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s like once all of these structures are established, then love can safely flow in and bring life to the community.

Many of the “don’ts” in Kedoshim are about how we treat the marginalized or vulnerable among us.  For example, 19:13

לֹֽא־תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃

Don’t hold onto a day-laborers wages until morning.  He needs that money, and he must be paid the same day.   Or, 19:9

לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר

Don’t harvest all the way to the corner of your field.  There are people amongst you who don’t have enough to eat, and you must leave something over for them to come take. 

The first of those two is a matter of justice.  You owe the laborer money, and you cannot sit on his wages.  The second – leaving a portion of the field – the Torah also turns into a matter of justice, by making it a commandment.  And in fact, the Hebrew word for “charity”, tsedakah, is based in the root tsedek, which means justice.  But there’s a difference between the wages and the field.  Although the Torah requires that you not harvest the entire field, but it doesn’t say how much you must leave over.  The amount is up to the kindness of your heart.

I’ve written in my little One Minute Torah commentaries about paying the laborer on time, and how in my own life I’ve taken this mitzvah very seriously.  Some of you may have read what I wrote.  This mitzvah came up again in my personal life a few weeks ago.  In ordinary times, I’m incredibly privileged to be able to hire someone to clean my house for me. I usually write her a check every Tuesday morning – that’s the day she comes.  We can’t have her come now,  so instead I authorize my bank to send a check for two weeks worth of pay every other week.  Only, I lost track of time, and suddenly realized that three weeks had passed and I hadn’t paid her.  And I felt terrible about it, because I know she and her children rely on her income to live.

But then, how bad should I have felt?  Is this a situation like the day laborer?  She’s not actually doing any work for me during this time.  Maybe this is more like the corner of the field? I have an obligation to do something for her – but how much and how often is really up to me.

I thought about this question as I cleaned my bathroom last Sunday.  I also thought about a lot of other things.  How hard it is to properly clean a bathroom.  That the last time I can remember doing so before Covid, was when I was a graduate student.  That neither of my teenage children had ever cleaned a bathroom until last month, and if Covid hadn’t struck they likely would have graduated and gone off to college without ever having done so.  As it turns out, Shira got really into it.  Not only did she clean, she totally reorganized the medicine cabinet and looks better than it has in years.

And then I thought about Gabriella, the woman who has been doing this job for us for the last few years.  She’s quiet, and thoughtful, and generous.  When about a year ago a  young mother in her community died of cancer, Gabriella raised enough money so the family could provide a proper funeral. Gabriella did not go to high-school.  Her family couldn’t afford it.  In fact, she moved to this country as a young teenager, so she could provide a living for herself and her family.  She taught herself English.  She learned to navigate a foreign culture.  She taught herself enough history to pass a citizenship test.  I have wondered more than once what Gabriella might have accomplished in life if she had been given the kind of opportunities I had been given from the get-go.  Now she tells me she is doing ok, though only some of her clients are continuing to pay her during this time.

Back in March, when Stanford shut down most of its dorms, quite a few students were stranded and an urgent call went out looking for hosts.  Our family took in an undergraduate, a young man who had grown up in Los Angeles but who had emigrated with his mother from Mexico as a baby.  He was working two jobs to get himself through Stanford, and he didn’t want to go back to Los Angeles so long as there was a possibility his income here would continue.  He didn’t stay with us long.  Once his job shut down, he decided it made more sense to go stay with his mother and find work down there.  He was looking at delivering for Amazon, though he knew it would be putting his mother at risk for Covid he didn’t feel he had a choice as they needed the money to live on.  Stanford’s classes have moved entirely online now, but when I last spoke to this young man he thought he was most likely going to have to take a leave of absence until campus opened up again and he could work his regular campus job.  And, by the way, at some point during his stay with us he reminisced about the day he received his acceptance to Stanford.  He had been cleaning a toilet when the good news arrived.

Much has been written about the inequality of Covid. From a national perspective and an international one.  Many articles analyzing the unfairness through the lens of race, of class structure, of politics.  I am not going to touch any of that today.  Instead, on Shabbat, I want to invite you to think about the spiritual consequences of inequality – and not just of the inequality brought by Covid, but of all the inequalities that have always existed in human society, though some times much more extreme than others.

My extended family organized a Zoom reunion last Sunday, and in the course of conversation one of my relatives said, “I’m paying my cleaning lady, and I’m cleaning the toilet.”  She was doing the right thing, but you could feel she resented it. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!  In that moment I agreed with her.

But when I was actually cleaning, I had the opposite feeling.  I wondered why it should be that someone else should ever be cleaning my bathroom for me.  And why that person should be dependent now on my charity to feed her children.

Which brings me back to the scapegoat. Perhaps THE moment of the ritual was neither the sacrifice of the one goat, nor the release of the other.  Perhaps THE central moment was the drawing of the lots.  The realization that these two identical goats, neither guilty nor innocent of anything, would suffer opposite fates because some being much  more powerful than they had randomly assigned them that way.  The one goat did not deserve to be brought closer to God any more than I did or did not deserve to be born a US citizen, into a family that  valued education, and with the means  to provide it and the talent to take advantage of it. The other goat did not deserve to be sent into the wilderness bearing  the people’s sins, any more than Gabriella deserved to be on her own, in a foreign land, at the age of 15, with the talent to build herself from there.  It just worked out that way.

The Torah contains only three mitzvot about love.  One, you shall  love Adonai your God.  That’s Deuteronomy, the shma.  The other  two are included in Kedoshim – our reading this week.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  And who is the third being  you must love?  God, your neighbor, and the foreigner.  The ger.  As different as the foreigner may be from you.  They may speak in a strange accent and be difficult to understand.  Or they may not speak your language at all, or know your culture, or even your values.  And yet, the text says, you shall love the foreigner as yourself.  Why?  Because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.  It was just a cast of the lots.  You  happened to be born an Israelite in ancient Israel, or an American in America.  But if you’d been born just  a few generations back, you would have been the foreigner. Feel that.  Live that.  And then charity becomes so obviously justice.