Social Justice...And Sacrifices?
What Do Sacrificial Laws Teach Us About Social Justice?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This week's parsha includes social justice laws – leave some crops for the poor, etc. – right next some very detail-oriented laws relates to animal sacrifices. What's the connection between these two sets of laws in Leviticus? How does sacrificial law help us understand the Bible's lessons on social justice?
Rabbi Fohrman argues that in this section of text, the Torah is doubling down on important principles – that can be found just as clearly in the Bible's sacrifice laws as in social justice. Come and see the connection for yourself.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, you are watching Aleph Beta and welcome to Parshat Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Parshat Kedoshim, the second Parsha we read this week contains almost a maze of seemingly unrelated laws, and today I'd like to focus on a few of them with you and see if we can decipher why it is that these things go together.
And to do that, I'd like to play our favorite "Sesame Street" game with you: Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other? Which one of these things just doesn't belong?
Understanding Social Justice Laws in the BibleSo here's one category, it's going to begin with verse 9 in Chapter 19; U'bekutzerchem et ketzir artzechem – when you harvest your fields; Loh techaleh pe'as sadecha liktzor – don't reap the corners of the field; V'leket ketzircha loh telakeit – and don't gather in all of the wheat, leave some of the gleanings behind. karmecha loh te'ollel u'peret karmecha loh telakeit – don't take every last grape when you harvest your vineyard; Le'ani v'la'ger ta'azov otam – leave them behind for the poor, for the stranger. Ani Hashem Elokeichem – I am G-d. So that's one set of laws having to do with being nice to poor people. Let's keep on moving.
Loh tignovu v'loh techachashu v'loh teshakru ish ba'amito – you shouldn't steal, you shouldn't lie, you shouldn't deceive other people. V'loh tishav'u b'shemi lashaker – you shouldn't swear falsely in G-d's name; V'chilalta et shem Elokecha – and you profane G-d's name by doing that; Ani Hashem – I am G-d.
So, so far all these laws kind of go together, right? All these wonderful social justice laws. But what happens if you back up a little bit, just a couple of verses right before this? What's the set of the laws that immediately proceed all of this social justice stuff?
Strangely what we hear right before is, is the minutia of sacrificial law.
What Does Sacrificial Law Have to Do with Social Justice?Vechi tizbechu zevach shlamim la'Hashem – and if you offer a peace offering to G-d. And then we get the finest of details regarding this peace offering; it needs to be eaten on the day that the offering is slaughtered or the next day, it can't be eaten on the third day. Not only can't it be eaten on the third day, you can't even think about eating the meat on the third day when you're slaughtering the offering, and if you do, the whole offering becomes disqualified just by virtue of that thought.
These, by the way, are the laws of Piggul. The idea that if you're thinking the wrong thing in the early stages of a sacrificial offering, the whole thing becomes disqualified, which is itself just kind of a strange law. I mean, it's one thing if you do the wrong thing, but over here it's like you slaughter the offering right, you even eat the meat at the right time, but when you were slaughtering the offering you thought about eating the meat at the wrong time, then the whole thing is disqualified. It's such a strange law.
What's even stranger than the law is what it's doing here. Why is this the great introduction to these social justice laws that come right afterwards?
So I think whenever we play this game with the Torah; Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other, and we find something that ostensibly is not like the other, usually the answer is, that it really is like the others, they really do belong. What really is the underlying commonality here?
Okay so as a clue, let's point out that the strange sacrificial laws over here deal with the Shlamim offering – a wholeness offering, or a peace offering. We heard about that wholeness offering back in Parshat Vayikra, and I suggested that there was a kind of relationship there between the Shlamim, the Olah, and the Chatat. And now, here in Parshat Kedoshim we again encounter the same fascinating three-way relationship; just this time it's between the Shlamim and different kinds of social justice laws.
Biblical Connections Between the Laws of LeviticusLet me explain what I mean by this. Picture in your mind a big game of Capture the Flag. There's my space over there on the left hand side, there's your space over here on the right hand side and then I've got my special thing, that's my flag over there, you've got your special thing, that's your flag over there. Then there's the middle, there's no-man's-land. So if you think about that territory division, sort of yours over here, mine over here, and no-man's-land over here, that provides a really good map for thinking about the role of each of these Korbanot that are introduced at the very beginning, in Vayikra. The Chatat – the sin offering; the Olah – the offering that goes up to G-d, the burnt offering; and the Shlamim – the wholeness offering, or the peace offering.
What is, after all, a sin offering? A sin offering is when I violate your side of the field, there's something that's off-limits to me and something that's G-d – go back to the very original sin, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was G-d's one, special tree. When you go and take from it, that's a violation of respect, so there's a mandatory sin offering, you have to express some regret and contrition for that. And that's part of how we relate to G-d.
We also relate to G-d on the other side of the field, on my side of the field, and that's where the Olah comes in. There is a kind of propensity within a human spiritual world to sometimes feel a sense of abandonment to G-d, to offer everything up to G-d. The paradigm of the Olah is Abraham's Olah, when he has offered literally everything; his legacy, his life, his future, he was willing to offer Isaac himself. He doesn't actually do it, G-d says no, but that's that sense of abandonment. Atah yadati ki yarei Elokim atah – now I know that you are someone who is in awe of G-d. The sense of awe is abandonment. Sometimes you do that, you say, my flag it's all yours G-d, there is no me. We do that with an Olah, an offering that completely goes up to G-d, that there is nothing of it that's eaten by the owners of the offering.
But then there's an offering called a Shlamim, the offering of no-man's-land, the offering of covenant. What is a covenant? It's when we meet in the middle, when I give you something and I hope that you give me something back, when there's a hoped-for transaction. And it's a great thing a covenant, the happiest covenants we have are the marriage covenants, where I give to you and you give to me. This is a great sense of wholeness that we have with each other, hence a Shlamim offering, an offering of wholeness. And the offering itself is a mini reenactment of the covenant; the feast that celebrates it partakes of the covenant, in the sense that part of the offering goes to me, the owner, part of it goes to You, to G-d, is offered up on the altar. Part of it goes to the Kohanim, they're eating on behalf of G-d. It's shared, as a covenant to share.
The offering is expressed; yours, mine and ours. To relate to G-d effectively you've got to relate to G-d with all parts of the field. If you transgress the part you shouldn't be in, you have to acknowledge that, the Chatat. And sometimes you make covenants with G-d, covenants of love, covenants of giving and you hope G-d will give back to you. Sometimes you just abandon yourself, you say, G-d there's nothing left, it's all yours. That's playing with all parts of the field, and I think those parts of the field come back and we hear of Shlamim again here in Parshat Kedoshim.
Laws of Leviticus Relating to Your DomainRemember those laws we were talking about, the ones that had to do with being nice to poor people? You know that's one way to phrase them, be nice to poor people, but there's another way to phrase them too. Listen to how the text phrases it. U'bekutzerchem et ketzir artzechem – when you're taking your gleanings, leave things over for the poor. Vekarmecha loh te'ollel – your vineyard don't take every last little grain. G-d is talking to me about mine, how should I deal nobly and correctly, justly, with the part of life that's really mine? Technically I'm entitled to all of it – yeah, but you know what doing the right thing is? Have most of it, leave a little bit for the poor.
What about your side of the domain? How should I relate to the side of the world that doesn't belong to me? Well that's the next set of laws.
Laws of Leviticus Relating to Others' DomainDon't steal, don't lie, don't deceive, don't use G-d's name in order to do it. What is the Torah saying here? What is the right way to deal with the other fellow's domain?
Don't violate that domain, respect that domain, don't take the thing on the other side that you'd like to have that doesn't really belong to you. If the other person has stuff don't steal it, if the other person has a right to information don't take that from them. And don't violate G-d's domain by taking the one, special thing that G-d has, His name, in order to perpetrate those crimes.
When it comes to others' domain, don't violate that domain, respect it.
Laws of Leviticus Relating to a Shared DomainAnd now the middle realm, no-man's-land. Not the mine, not the yours, but the ours. And here we meet the Shlamim once again. The middle realm is the realm of a covenant, the realm when we meet in the middle and I give to you and you give to me.
And what's the greatest crime that you could ever make in the sealing of the covenant? It's one thing to make a covenant and then years later to find yourself unable to live up to its terms. What's even worse is to seal the covenant but even as you ostensibly agree to the terms, to have in mind to violate them, and that is the sin of Piggul.
Here you are, you're coming to G-d, meeting Him halfway, say G-d, I'm trying to give You something and I hope that You'll give something back to me, and let's have some sort of covenant between us. To express that here's this wholeness offering. But you're not whole with G-d because you're thinking about betraying the covenant even as you seal it.
Symbolically what does that look like? In the little feast that you have, to sort of honor that covenant making, there's certain terms of that covenant, certain times when the meat should be eaten and when it should not be eaten. And even as I engage in that covenant I think about betraying it and I'm going to eat the meat when I'm not allowed to. Symbolic of making a covenant that on some level you aren't really serious about living up to. Don't betray the wholeness of the covenant as you're in the process of sealing it, with insidious intent to violate its terms.
The Bible's Connection Between Sacrificial and Social Justice LawsDo you see what's happening here in Parshat Kedoshim? The Torah is taking principles that it once expressed purely in terms of sacrificial law and now mixing and matching sacrificial law with social justice. It's all one thing.
How you relate to G-d, how you relate to others, it's all about yours, mine and ours, and living justly and nobly with all of those parts of the field. If you can live up to this challenge, to do the right thing with what's yours – leave a little bit over for the poor; do the right thing with what belonged to the other – don't steal, don't take from them; and do the right thing in no-man's-land, in the realm of the covenant – don't seal covenants that you're not serious about; then and only then, will you really live up to the namesake of this Parsha: Kedoshim Tiheyu – being holy to G-d.