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Torah Sparks

April 28, 2007 – 10 Iyar 5767

Annual: Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Triennial: Leviticus 19:15 – 20 -:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 696; Hertz p. 500)
Haftarah: Amos 9:7 – 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 706; Hertz p. 509)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of This Week's Parashiot

Following a brief passing reference to the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, which was reported in more detail in an earlier parashah, the Torah details the procedures to be carefully followed in the sacrificial rituals of Yom Kippur. These rituals are performed only by the high priest, the kohen gadol; as he does so the people are to practice self-denial, including fasting.

In reference to sacrifices, we are reminded not to consume the blood of any animal. (This prohibition also extends to meat that is consumed outside the sacrificial framework; it is a matter of sensitivity to life.) Similarly, we are prohibited from eating the meat of an animal that has died of natural causes or has been torn apart.

In dealing with further aspects of holiness, the Torah defines which sexual relationships are permissible and which are forbidden. The level of detail in this section is matched by the meticulous detail of the social legislation that follows. While gathering the harvest, we are to leave the corners and the gleanings for the poor. We are not to steal or lie or take God’s name in vain. We are to pay wages in a timely fashion and to show sensitivity to those who cannot hear or see. We are to judge justly and refrain from gossip. We should be forgiving, yet offer constructive criticism. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to honor the old. We are to respect the stranger, keeping in mind that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We must maintain just weights and measures.

We are prohibited from following many of the practices of the peoples who preceded us in the Promised Land. Our behavior must be worthy of the gift we will receive, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Topic #1: Mandatory Charity

Our society is accustomed to thinking of charity as a voluntary activity. However, the Torah portrays certain forms of charity as commandments. (Following this pattern, Judaism came to refer to charity as tzedakah, which is derived from the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek.) Chapter 19 of Leviticus acknowledges no distinction between the charity that is required of a farmer (verses 9-10) and the requirement for just weights and measures (verses 35-36).

Would either of these acts be considered “charity” as we use the word today? How would we describe such actions? What message can we learn from the fact that the Torah seems to equate these two kinds of actions by listing them in such close proximity? In what ways do both of these clusters of commandments promote well-being for all levels of society?

Topic #2: Varieties of Tzedakah

Maimonides deals with various forms of charity in Book VII of his code of Jewish law. (This volume is called Seeds. Keep in mind that several forms of required tzedakah, as outlined in today’s Torah reading, involve aspects of the harvest, since the Torah reflects an agrarian society.)

Maimonides saw the various forms of tzedakah as forming a hierarchy. The following are excerpts from his synthesis in Chapter 10 of “Gifts to the Poor,” a section from Seeds.

  1. The highest degree … is that of the person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid.
  2. A step below this stands the one who gives alms to the needy in such a manner that the giver knows not to whom he gives and the recipient knows not from whom it is that he takes.
  3. One step lower is that in which the giver knows to whom he gives but the poor person knows not from whom he receives.
  4. A step lower is that in which the poor person knows from whom he is taking but the giver knows not to whom he is giving.
  5. The next degree lower is that of him who, with his own hand, bestows a gift before the poor person asks.
  6. The next degree lower is that of him who gives only after the poor person asks.
  7. The next degree lower is that of him who gives less than is fitting but gives with a gracious mien.
  8. The next degree lower is that of him who gives morosely.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What psychological concerns appear to contribute to Maimonides’ hierarchy of levels of tzedakah?
  2. Maimonides uses the terms “poor” and “recipient” interchangeably. He seems never to refer to the donor as “rich,” though. Why do you suppose he does that?
  3. Within Maimonides’ hierarchy of tzedakah, can you identify any underlying rationales that he may have extracted from this week’s Torah reading?

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