LOOK AFTER THE LEVITE.
In a Torah portion packed with content there comes the sentence,
“Do not abandon the Levite” (Deut. 12:19).
Look at its context and you understand the verse. Israelite worship had to avoid all forms of idolatry. Authentic Jewish worship had to be structured according to the pattern of priests, Levites and Temple.
Why were the Levites such an important group? Maimonides explains at the beginning of his Hil’chot Avodah Zarah that they were the real spiritual leaders of the community. Not that the kohanim were not essential, but it was the Levites who facilitated the work of the priests.
The name Levi probably comes from a root that means “to accompany” (Gen. 29:34; Num. 18:24), because accompanying the priests and working with them was the Levites’ God-given role. They were like the shammash charged with the task of making sure that the menorah would shed light.
They had a physical role in the sanctuary equipment and its rituals, but they were also the singers who aroused the spiritual and emotional feelings of the people.
And they were an intellectual repository of the traditions of Israel: people whose minds were struggling could come to them for guidance and direction.
The tribe of Levi merited this distinction because they were not involved in the sin of the golden calf.
Why were the people of Israel told not to abandon the Levites? Because the Levites did not abandon them.
YOUR POOR BROTHER.
“Do not shut your hand from your needy brother” (Deut. 15:7)
tells us that even if we possess very little we should open our hand to assist the poor person, not tightly clench our hand and decide not to support him.
“If you withhold your hand from him, you yourself will become needy”.
It’s a doctrine of reciprocal expediency – sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander: if you refuse to help others, then others may refuse to help you.
The verse implies, in addition, a concept of family responsibility: poor or rich, the needy person is “your brother”. True brothers and sisters support one another. When one is in pain, the others feel it. When one is successful, they all rejoice.
There is a saying, “Family is family”. Rabbinical life sometimes illustrated this for me in truly vivid fashion. I remember to this day how when one member of a certain family needed assistance, the others (and their parents) all came good with immediate support.
Unfortunately I also remember disappointing families where there was coldness and disdain, and certain members of a family gloated at others’ misfortunes to the extent of not even attending the funeral of a sibling or coming to visit the shivah house. The fact that the coldness sometimes came from supposedly religious people who were regular shule-goers, only compounds the tragedy.
True religion is in the verse quoted above:
“Do not shut your hand from your needy brother”.
FOODS, FADS, FANATICS
Jews have so many simplistic definitions of religiosity.
“I go to a religious synagogue” (are there any others?)… “I don’t go synagogue but I keep the Ten Commandments” (if only!)… “I’m not so religious – I don’t keep a kosher home”…
This Shabbat, when the dietary laws figure in the Torah reading, let’s focus on the third category: “I’m not so religious – I don’t keep a kosher home!”
Observing kashrut actually is in many ways a test of religiosity. What it says is,
“I bring religious principle into the most everyday moments of my life”.
It was a great Christian cleric who said,
“God is interested in a lot of other things apart from religion”.
What he meant was probably that God’s concern is not limited to religious days and religious places. Judaism knew this from its inception, when it said,
“In all your ways, know Him” – “b’chol d’rachecha da’ehu” (Prov. 3:6).
Not only in the synagogue, not only through the prayer book, but wherever you are and whatever you do – all is part of religion.
Kashrut is religious in another sense too. When you control what you eat and how you eat, you are showing self-discipline – also a mark of religiosity. When you choose to be kosher and the meat you consume has been made available by shechitah, that’s kindness to animals – another indication of religion. When you have a kosher home and show consideration for your fellow Jew who is particular about kashrut, that’s “Love your neighbour as yourself” – once again religion.
Keeping kosher is certainly a religious practice, but even the supposed non-religious are not debarred from having kosher homes… The sidra says, “You are a people hallowed to the Lord your God” (Deut. 14:22). Even the non-religious are allowed to be hallowed.
ROSH CHODESH ELLUL.
Next week brings the beginning of Ellul, a month with a serious and sombre mood as befits the lead-up to Rosh HaShanah. The High Holyday spirit is apparent from the melody used for the announcement of Rosh Chodesh, and from the recital of Psalm 27, the Penitential Psalm, as well as the daily blowing of the shofar.
It appears strange, however, that at the end of Ellul the one Rosh Chodesh we do not announce in the synagogue is Tishri. Since 1-2 Tishri is Rosh HaShanah, we hardly need to announce it and its approach is all around us. The other months are different, since once, people were unsure about dates without an announcement. Even today, with all our technology, we sometimes wonder what the date is and have to ask a computer or cell phone.
Jewish observance depends on knowing the Hebrew date. Ex. 12 says, “This month (Nisan) is the first of the months”, which Rambam sees as a duty to announce the months (Hil’chot Kiddush HaChodesh 1). Originally this duty needed eye-witness testimony at the Sanhedrin, but later it was governed by calculation. The Rosh Chodesh announcement, asking for a good month, is based on a personal prayer of Rav (Ber. 16b).
Rosh Chodesh is linked with the phases of the moon. As the moon waxes and wanes, so does Jewish history. Our spiritual life also goes through stages, oscillating between greater and lesser faith.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com