Rabbi Robinson’s Sermon, April 22 2022

Acharei Mot Leviticus 18:1-5

Plaut P. 776

Source Sheet by Yair Robinson



Leviticus 18:1-5

(1) יהוה spoke to Moses, saying: (2) Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I יהוה am your God. (3) You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. (4) My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I יהוה am your God. (5) You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live: I am יהוה.


ויקרא י״ח:א׳-ה׳

(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (ב) דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ג) כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ׃ (ד) אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֧י תַּעֲשׂ֛וּ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ לָלֶ֣כֶת בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ה) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃ {ס}


As we wrap up Passover, whether tonight or tomorrow night, we as a people have been profoundly conscience of our differences from others, which is kind of the point. Pesach and its observance put a fine point on the fact that we are a people set apart, mostly by our own choice, as we maintain a distinct idea of holiness and covenant and what it means to engage with the world, but sometimes against our will as well. It reminds us of the question: how distinct ought we be? How different should we be from the world around us? What do we gain, and what do we lose, by our separation? How do we strike that balance?


Our text answers that question unequivocally, at least on first blush. Our text exhorts us to follow only God’s mitzvot, and not the ways of other societies. But when we get to verse five, something interesting happens. The text tells us to keep God’s chukotav u’mishpotav. These are synonyms for ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ or ‘judgements’. But the Talmud (Yoma 67b) and Rashi take those words to mean something else: these are not just any rules or laws. Rather, these are rules that are self-evident, even logical, rules that, had God not commanded them, we would write them down ourselves: prohibitions against idolatry, bloodshed, theft, and the like. Which is to say, these are universal values, ones that we might follow whether they were in the Torah or not, and that we might find expressed just as beautifully in any non-Jewish source: a poem by Basho, a novel by Austen, a song by Joni Mitchel.


As Reform Jews we live in this tension, so much so that we might not even notice it, except for times like Passover, that bring our difference into sharp relief. On the one hand, we believe that Judaism and especially the word of the prophets speak to a universal ideal of justice and care for the world and each other, and that we carry a sacred task to share that message beyond the four walls of the sanctuary. On the other hand, too often we have been on the receiving end of various enthusiastic universalisms that demanded our conversion or else. So, the idea of bringing universal values through Judaism feels…a little out of sorts sometimes with our historic experience. Pesach inhabits this tension beautifully. We welcome the stranger into our Seders, we lessen our joy recounting the plagues on Egypt with sadness and compare our own experience of bondage and freedom with that of others, with an eye toward caring for their needs. And, at the same time, we emphasize that this experience is ours and somehow fundamental to our identity as Jews.


And that is important. Keeping Pesach cannot just be a folk way, an ethnic experience. It is essential to who we are, and on some level, obligates us to share those universal values with the world: values of justice, of the sacredness of the individual, the equality of all. Ideas that we might have affirmed irrespective of the Torah but having them as mitzvot elevates them and our task.


So, as we turn our kitchens back over, and sweep the last crumbs of matzah from our counters and tables, let us also acknowledge, with humility, our sacred task to truly bring light to dark corners. Amen.