On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Emor: Justice and Balance in Modern Times

This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, speaks about parashat Emor and asks: how do you enact justice in modern times to make the world more balanced? And how do you elevate the receiver -- not your own self, the giver?

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Welcome to episode 17 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism. And subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, speaks about Parashat Emor, asking, how do you enact justice in modern times to make the world more balanced? And how do you elevate the receiver, not your own self, the giver?

This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Emor from the book of Leviticus. Emor literally means to speak, and it's about a series of teachings for leaders. It talks about the holy days, and it talks about how our obligation for tzedakah is one of the core obligations of Jewish life. Usfartem lochem it begins telling us about sacred time that we must count our days. We have to make every day count. And particularly between Passover and Shavuot. We're to count each and every day, so that we really appreciate that journey from freedom to responsibility, from the exodus from Egypt to standing at Sinai. But on each of those days, we really are asked to think very, very intentionally about how we take that journey personally, and as a people.

I love-- there's a teaching from my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, about the sacred calendar that we find in Emor. Larry points out that when you go to get a Jewish calendar from the butcher, or from the mortuary, where they always have extra Jewish calendars, there's no room actually to write in all of your appointments. No, what's on those more classical, traditional Jewish calendars are your appointments with the creator. With the community. It's not about what you put on, it's about what our people have already put on our calendars.

But we're usually too busy. So we take those big, bulky calendars, and we're reminded-- and Larry tells us that there's something so profound about what we learned about ourselves through those holy days. On Tisha B’av we learn how to mourn. On Simchat Torah we learn how to be happy, and how to experience joy with abandon. On Purim, we learn how to be a kid. On Sukkot, we learn how to be grateful. At seder, we learn to enjoy community, and to appreciate freedom. And on Yom Kippur, we learn how to be responsible for what we say and what we do. So with the sacred calendar and counting the days, we have tucked into Parashat Emor, this very, very famous, well-known passage, which tells us when you reap the harvest of your land, you should not reap all the way to the edges of your field. No. You have to leave the corners of your field for the poor and the stranger.

Now, you could think, “now that's not the best way to give tzedakah,” you might argue. Why not harvest your entire field, and then gather up your extra, and go and deliver it to the poor? But this is simply brilliant of our tradition, to say no, no. Let the poor and the stranger, let them come, preferably at night, when no one sees them. Let them come and take what they need with no shame. And let them share in your bounty. But you won't even know who they are. It's the purest form of tzedakah. It's such a powerful teaching, not just to tell us that we should give tzedakah, or the amount we should give, but the way we should give. That we should be so sensitive to the feelings of the person who is receiving. It's not all about us and our generosity, and the good that we want to do. It's about the dignity and the wellbeing of that person who will be helped by that act of tzedakah.

So I know what you're thinking. I'm not a farmer. What am I going to do? I don't harvest my fields. How do I go about giving my tzedakah, my charity? But charity isn't the right word, because it really comes from the word tzedek, which means justice. How do I give my gifts to the needy, and take into account to make sure I don't shame or embarrass them? We can do that. We can do more anonymous giving. We can find ways to do this holy work.

I love the story-- It's a story of about Shmelke, who always gave to the poor. And once, he was home and somebody knocked on the door, and he realized he had no money to give this poor beggar at his door. So he ran into the bedroom, into their dresser, and he took out a ring that belonged to his wife. And he came back to the door, and he gave it to the beggar. Well when Shmelke's wife came home, he told her what had happened. And she went crazy. She said do you know, that's such an expensive ring? And he went running after the beggar. He finally caught up with the beggar, and he said it's such an expensive ring. Make sure when you sell it, you get a fair price for it. And then he went back home.

Now we could say boy, Shmelke certainly has a little work to do with his marriage, which is probably true. But Shmelke knew that giving to others is one of the holiest things that we do. And those of us who live in cities, every day we're bombarded by people asking us for alms, for tzedakah, for charity. How are we going to sculpt a response that will actually make the world more level in its playing field of economics. And how will we do it in a way that elevates the one who receives? And not elevates the one who gives? These are the high bars of Jewish ethical practice. It's not the beginner's class. It's not even the intermediate class. No. These are the advanced lessons of tzedakah. But I know that's what we aspire to in our religious lives.

So I leave you with this beautiful teaching from the Talmud-- says that Rabbi Eliezar taught. The full impact and richness of tzedakah depends on the amount of loving kindness we put into the deed. So let's do many holy deeds of tzedakah this coming week and beyond. And let's put as much loving kindness in those deeds as possible. And you know what will happen? We will begin to redeem the world.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On The Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.