I was a student in my father's ninth grade religious-school class. What I remember the most all these years later is learning Torah from him and, most important, the practical ethical lessons we can apply to our lives from our most sacred text. In particular, studying the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), which includes the Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon (Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18, 32-37), has had a lifelong influence on me.
The Holiness Code is a great selection for that day because it tells us that when many people are so focused on the ritual of coming to pray on one day to the exclusion of others, it is their behavior that truly makes them holy. This includes our praying and attending services, but it also includes our ethics. It applies to everyone-not just rabbis and cantors and "regular" service attendees.
The eleventh-century commentator Rashi wrote on Leviticus 19:2: ". . . this section was proclaimed in full assembly ('all the congregation of the children of Israel') because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah are dependent on it" (see Sifra; Vayikra Rabbah 24:5). And Rabbi Levi points out "because the Ten Commandments are included in this section (therefore, it was proclaimed to the full assembly)" (Vayikra Rabbah 24:5). Rabbi Levi specifically mentions the repetition of commandments regarding recognizing the Eternal as our God, not worshiping other gods, not swearing falsely, observing Shabbat, respecting parents, not taking the life of another or standing idly by, not committing adultery, not stealing, and not being a talebearer (similar to "false witness'"). Finally, he matches up not coveting with loving "your neighbor as you love yourself." In The Torah: A Women's Commentary,1 Tamara Cohn Eskenazi stated: "Connections . . . define the holy community: the connection to parents whom one must honor, to the poor and the disadvantaged whom one must protect, to the neighbor and stranger whom one must love, and of course to God" (p. 716).
My father understood the importance of connections and he, too, believed that holiness can be exemplified in different ways and at different times. Like the Rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud, Dad took the ethical statements of the Holiness Code and gave specific examples of how they should relate to us. The most memorable was based on the commandment: "You shall not . . . place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). He told us of a time he was sitting in traffic and saw another car blocking the crosswalk. At that very moment, a blind woman-walking with a white cane and without a companion-attempted to cross the street safely where the law and common decency would say she had the right to do so. The woman bumped into the car and fell down, and was helped up by other pedestrians (who did not stand idly by). There was no help at all from the driver, who left the scene quickly.
Just as quickly, we students condemned the driver, but my dad allowed for the possibility that maybe he or she was unaware of what had happened. We talked about intentional and unintentional sin, and the fact that the Yom Kippur liturgy uses more than one word to describe our human failings. I think of that Torah lesson whenever I am in a crosswalk or in my car near a crosswalk. And I remind myself never to assume that someone else is always wrong and I am always right, and vice versa. What we perceive to be reality may not be reality, or maybe it is. There are stumbling blocks-objects and human beings-and there is blindness-literal and figurative. That is applying learning to life.
And that is the way learning Torah is supposed to be. According to the Holiness Code: "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). The Torah teaches us that we should behave as God would want us to behave and that we-created in God's image-should strive to be like God. Bernard J. Bamberger2 wrote, "Taken literally, the law forbids the ugly practice of making fun of the disabled. Sifra takes this precept figuratively: Do not give self-serving advice to one who is ignorant and inexperienced. And to later interpreters, this law forbids various deceitful practices." The Jewish Study Bible3 goes beyond the basic words and says: "the second (verse), speaking metaphorically and not of those literally deaf or blind, extends the principle to include exploitation of others by capitalizing on their ignorance or vulnerability."
Reading from the Holiness Code on Yom Kippur afternoon is both appropriate and meaningful. Appropriate, because it is the holiest day of the High Holidays and of the entire year. Meaningful, because it reminds us that holiness is not just revealed in how we pray to God and in what we promise to others, but also in what we do as God's partners and in how we treat God's creatures.
My congregation has developed the custom of having laypeople trained to read Torah on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. But I have reserved the right to read the Holiness Code on Yom Kippur afternoon, and will do so this year once again. I read those verses proudly in tribute to the lessons I learned from my father that are as important and relevant to me on Yom Kippur and throughout the year as they were when I was his student.
1. The Torah: A Women's Commentary (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), p. 716
2. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 799
3. The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 254