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When Human Dignity is Not at the Center

May 14, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah addressing the violence in Israel.

When I heard of the violence and bloodshed occurring in Jewish and Muslim holy sites—the Temple Mount and the Al Aksah Mosque–centered around Jewish and Muslim holy days—Yom Yerushalayim and Ramadan—I thought not of the Torah portion but of a very odd and violent passage of Talmud that was discussed in last Monday’s daily page (daf yomi) of Talmud.

In Yoma 23a, we learn that at some point, the priests in the ancient Temple established a lottery to determine which of them would have the honor of removing the ashes from the sacrificial altar each morning. This lottery was meant as a replacement of an earlier method, in which the priests would race one another up the ramp to the altar in order to determine who would perform the sacred task.

We can probably already see why this was not the best method.

It so happened that one day, in the heat of the race, one priest shoved the other (and remember, these are grown men, if still young and low-ranking priests), and he fell off the ramp and broke his leg. This might have been reason enough to institute the lottery.

But of course, it gets worse. One day, the sages tell us, the priest who lost the race was so angry that he took out a knife and stabbed the winning priest in the heart.

Believe it or not, it gets even worse. While the community wailed, and the priests tried to determine who would bring the necessary atonement sacrifice, the priest’s father stepped forward and said, “My son has not yet died, so if you remove the knife from him now, it won’t become ritually impure through contact with a corpse and can still be used in the Temple.”

This story is meant as a condemnation by the Sages of the corruption of the priest of the Second Temple, as the Talmud concludes: This incident comes to teach you that the ritual purity of utensils was of more concern to them than the shedding of blood (Yoma 23a).

2000 years later, we can still be guilty of these inverted priorities. We as human beings are guilty of this whenever we put our holy sites, or our political agendas, above the humanity of our neighbors. This inversion is at the root of the conflict going on in Israel right now, in which both Israelis and Palestinians are engaging in violent attacks on one another that originated in a dispute over a holy site.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, Moses takes a census of all the men in the Israelite camp. It is not lost on us that this is how they prepare for a military campaign. But in later generations, it became a custom within the Jewish community not to count people. Some people thought this was because counting was a kenahora, a temptation of the evil eye.

But Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has a different interpretation:

“Why is there a negative attitude toward direct counting of people? There is actually a substantive theological issue involved. The human being is an image of God. This means that each individual is of infinite value, equal and unique. Counting an individual implies that we have “delimited” the person, we have established their parameters and can classify them by common characteristics as if all people are one type. We can now add one to another in the category of population registry. We should be forever exploring this unlimited dignity and never reach its limit enough to then lump the person with others as if they were similar units.”

We can only pray that all parties in this region can come together to recognize one another’s humanity, and the complexity of each others’ experiences, and work together create a lasting peace.

Then we might be able to embody the vision that the poet Yehuda Amichai put forth in his poem, “Tourists”:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

It is difficult to provide a nechemta, a word of comfort, in response to this ongoing violence and bloodshed. So instead, I’ll rely on this prayer by Rabbi Tamara Cohen:

Dear God, help us look,

look closer so that we may see

our children in their children,

their children in our own.

Help us look so that we may see

You in the bleary eyes of each orphan, each grieving childless mother,

each masked and camouflaged fighter for his people’s dignity.

Dear God, Divine Exiled and Crying One,

Loosen our claim to our own uniqueness.

Soften this hold on our exclusive right – to pain, to compassion, to justice.

May your children, all of us unique and in Your image,

come to know the quiet truths of shared pain,

shared hope,

shared land,

shared humanity,

shared risk,

shared courage,

shared peace.

In Sh’Allah. Ken yehi Ratzon.

May it be Your will.

And may it be ours.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz