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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Kedoshim                                May 11, 2019 - 6 Iyyar 5779

05/09/2019 11:45:49 AM


“Know yourself.  Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”
--- Ann Landers (1918-2002) - Pseudonym for the writers of the                                     Chicago Sun column, “Ask Ann Landers”, Ruth Crowley and Esther Pauline

 I imagine that Judaism must seem quite bizarre when observing it from the gentile world; the prayer shawls with their tassels, folksy circle dances and crusty flat bread that they eat for a week.  Even among Jews, we readily admit it can be pretty strange at times, like when we wear black boxes on our heads and arms, or when we all gather to eat the ceremonial pickled fish at a bris at 8am (I absolutely love herring, but at the same time I assume that we all concede it’s objectively gross).  But for all the weird hippi-Kabbalism and furry hats that comprise some of the more ‘romantic’ parts of Judaism, its core system, the basic values upon which our religion is based, are very simple, honest, and good.  This week’s parsha, Kedoshim, lists pretty much all of them: love your neighbour as yourself, treat the disabled with dignity, respect your parents, leave the corners of your field to the poor, seek justice fairly, deal honestly in business, the list goes on.

It is plain for most to see.  Even most non-Jews know that the single thing that we Jewish people venerate second only to God is Torah.  If we take a look, we find that the basic substance of the Torah is 613 commandments.  We then dismiss half of them that are irrelevant so long as we don’t have a Temple, which really leaves us with just a few uncomplicated guidelines and methods for respecting ourselves, one another, and God.  The rest, honestly, is flavouring.  The Talmud distills the core of Judaism even further with a story about a man who visits the great rabbis Hillel and Shamai.  The man visited the great Rav Shamai first with a request, “teach me the entirety of Torah whilst I stand here upon one leg”.  Shamai scoffed at the impossible and disrespectful question.  The man then visited the wise Rav Hillel and asked him the same question, to which Rav Hillel replied, “do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.  This is the entirety of Torah, and the rest is just commentary.  Go and learn it!”

Recent years have seen a dramatic resurgence in antisemitism in our schools, in governments, in the workplace, in popular opinion, in the news and in dramatic acts of extreme violence.  Many argue that this hostility is in no way directed at Jews but only against Israel and Zionism, that Israel’s existence is a crime against displaced indigenous Palestinians.  They curse Israel for committing war crimes in flexing its military might against children throwing rocks.  While Israel has been conducting operations in Gaza this past week, they seem to be completely oblivious to the rockets fired from Gaza and terror tunnels.

The anti-Semitic cartoon that appeared in the New York Times revealed the core of Zionism, which should not have been much of a surprise to any Jew, but I have to admit that I was still shocked anyway.  Not so much that something that bad could have made it to print without being caught by an editor, but that this blatantly obvious example of the rising issue of antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism would be largely ignored by the world.

For all his genius, Rav Shamai misconstrued the meaning of man’s question.  Shamai assumed that the man was insulting him, asking for just a taste of quickie-Judaism, as if Jewish learning was really just a passing interest like stamp-collecting.  Rav Hillel, on the other hand, did not take the man’s question as an insult, but as a genuine and earnest request to understand what was the most fundamental principle at the core of Judaism.  In the same breath, however, Rav Hillel makes sure that the man understands that just because he knows the fundamental principle, does not absolve him from the responsibility of learning Judaism properly.  “The rest is just commentary, go and learn it”, are Hillel’s parting words to the man.

The optimist in me wants to believe that most people, themselves, don’t actually understand the source of their feelings against Israel.  All we can do is continue to demonstrate our core, as we have always done, while we, as a people, continue to press the important question: what is the core behind your hatred?  Because calling it “anti-Zionism”, while still important, is really just commentary.

 Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780