River of Torah

River of Torah – Yom Kippur 5767 (2006)

In our study session this afternoon we will wrestle with the Holiness Code. This code – taken from Torah, Leviticus Chapter 19 – presents us with many challenges, both when the commandments it contains are clear and when they are ambiguous. In a moment I shall address two of the clearer commandments with you, but first let us understand what the word "Torah" means.

Torah is the name we give to the first five books of the Bible, as well as the entirety of our Law. In its simplest sense, the word "Torah" means law or instruction. By bringing together both "law" and "instruction" into one word, its meaning takes on an extra sense of action: this law is not merely something we must follow, but it is something which must be learned.

The word itself comes from the Hebrew hôrâ, which means to throw, direct, or teach. What an odd combination of meanings! How is teaching like throwing? We can come to understand that by looking at the stem from which hôrâ is derived: yårâ .

Properly, yårâ means to flow as water, most specifically as rain. I can see your confusion rising. First we learn that law and teaching are the same thing, and then we learn that they’re both somehow related to throwing. And now it’s all really flowing water? What is this hazerrai?

Consider flowing water for a moment: water travels inexorably, inevitably, downwards past obstacles and obstructions by whatever means necessary, until it reaches its destination – the ocean. It is a powerful, dynamic, life-giving force.

Of course, there is another meaning for yårâ: to shoot, especially an arrow. Can you see the similarity? Each sense of yårâ conveys the sense of inevitable, powerful movement towards a destination. In fact our word for sin – chet – literally means to miss the mark, as an arrow misses its target.

So what does this all teach us about Torah, about our Law? It teaches us that our Law is a natural one, in the sense that it is neither arbitrary nor capricious, but a Law that will lead us inevitably to a better world if we follow its guidance. It is not the only law, just as there are a multitude of rivers that lead to the ocean; but it is a true Law, a good Law, an effective Law, if only we will follow it.

There are many subtleties to Torah, of course, just as there are with the paths that water may take to the sea. And we are even told that the Law is ours to work with, to mold and shape through our understanding, so long as we live according to its greater purpose. Now, we may not amend the Law willy-nilly, but this is not simply because it is not allowed, but because if we do we will miss the mark – we will fail to follow the natural force of Justice.

What is that natural course? To what ocean does our Torah lead us? Listen to two commandments from the Holiness Code, and see where they lead. The first comes from Leviticus 19:10, which talks about the need to refrain from harvesting the corners of our fields. This commandment ends Le-ani v’la-ger ta-atzav otam: "For the poor and the stranger you shall leave [the gleanings]." The commandment is clear: we are obliged to help feed those in need, whether they be poor or not, whether they be Jewish or not.

In Syracuse, we have two and a half times the average number of families living in poverty as compared with the rest of the country. Years ago, we recognized our responsibility to act, and Temple Concord established the Food Pantry. In subsequent years, we have grown to be the largest food pantry in Onondaga County, and the third largest pantry in our region. Last year we served over 200,000 meals to people in need, raising nearly one-half of the $40,000 required to accomplish that from donations.

This is only one way that our congregation follows the compelling force of Torah’s mitzvah regarding the poor. We also cook for and serve the hungry at Christmas and at Easter-time, and of course we gather food today to supplement the Food Pantry’s normal appeal.

But simply serving over 20,000 different people food each year is not enough. In order to fulfill our duty, we must address two fundamental problems: malnutrition and programming.

One of the challenges that every food pantry must face is that the food that is easiest to provide is the least nutritious. Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost impossible to deliver effectively, so instead people often end up eating pasta and surplus cheese, or their nutritional equivalents.

The Central New York Food Bank, with whom we collaborate, is unusual in that it retains nutritionists to help guide its services, and it works hard to develop programs that will not only deliver more nutritious food but that will also teach people how to prepare food in healthier, more cost-effective ways.

Sue and Ernie Wass have been the champions of the Food Pantry and its success, but the mitzvah of feeding the poor and the stranger cannot be fulfilled by them for all of us. Help is needed to invent new ways of meeting the needs of our hungry, and of addressing the societal forces which create new poor and hungry each year. Please continue your donations, but consider contributing your expertise or your time. The Social Action Committee has made addressing the question of hunger its focus for the year: contact the committee and discover the opportunities to live Torah in our own community.

Le-ani v’la-ger ta-atzav otam. "For the poor and the stranger you shall leave them." A first mitzvah, easily understood, and not difficult to fulfill. Now I give you the challenge, from Leviticus 19:16:

Lo ta-amod al-dam rei-echa. "Do not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds." What does this mean? In his "Laws of Murderers and the Protection of Life," Maimonides makes clear our responsibility to protect others.

Unlike our responsibilities under our American system of laws, as Jews we are required to actively intervene when a person’s life is in danger. The most widely known example of this is that of the pursuer, or rodef. It says that if someone is in danger of losing their life, then bystanders must intervene and prevent the murder, even if it means killing the pursuer.

Now, you might say that the chances of you coming across an imminent murder are highly unlikely; I pray that they are. But Maimonides explains that our Torah does not merely require an individual to intervene personally to save a life: he writes, "[this commandment applies] when a person sees a colleague drowning at sea or being attacked by robbers or a wild animal, and he can save him himself, or can hire others to save him." As his proof text for this law, Maimonides cites our verse from Leviticus: "Do not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds."

When we as Jews faced the Holocaust, in large part the world stood by idly while we bled. We – and the homosexuals, the Gypsies and the disabled – were slaughtered by the millions, and yet the world did what it could to ignore and avoid the massive bloodshed.

After the war, a promise was made: "Never again." This promise was made by the world community, but it was made most poignantly by Jews around the world. I remember when, as a young teenager, our family visited the camp at Dachau. There in Hebrew, French, English, German and Russian read the words "Never again." Who but we Jews should better understand the import of that promise?

For years we have defended Israel against a recurrence of that horror. And yet right now, before all our faces, genocide is happening again – this time in the Sudan. In full view of the world community, 10,000 people a month are being systematically killed – one person every 4 minutes, and nearly half a million so far. At the same time, more than 2 million people in that country have been placed in camps, and twice that many are in need of immediate assistance.

For over two years the US has formally recognized that genocide is taking place in the Sudan; for that same period of time, the Jewish world community, under the auspices of the US Holocaust Museum’s Committee on Conscience, has declared a genocide emergency in that area.

Despite all the fine words, our actions have been lacking. Yes, in the past month hundreds of thousands of people have begun protesting, but unfortunately this is mostly window dressing. Negotiations have been underway for over six months, and in the past week the UN acknowledged that its recommendation of a peacekeeping force of 20,000 was unlikely to be accepted by the Sudanese government. The possibility of failure, and that the genocide will not only continue but accelerate – is very real.

What gives me hope is that the Jewish community – largely through the American Jewish World Service – is leading the grassroots effort to fight off this most inhuman of events. Why is it that the Jewish community should be so responsive?

I believe it is more than our experience with the Holocaust, though that certainly is important. No, I believe it is because of the force of Torah, that inexorable force for good that God has given us and that resonates so deeply within us, both as a people and as individuals. What can you do? Visit www.SaveDarfur.org. Contact the American Jewish World Service. Contact the Holocaust Museum. Or seek out information on the web.

Most importantly, don’t lose sight of what Torah means. Torah does not mean adherence to a fixed, static Law; it does not mean simply reacting to events when we can no longer avoid them. No, it means immersing ourselves in the action that is demanded by our covenant with the Eternal. As Jews, we must not simply sit and argue the finer points of this legal question or that, but we must swim in the river of Torah, and be nourished by it.

These are difficult challenges that we have been given; our Torah demands much from us. But if we are to be a light to the nations, we have no choice but to rise to meet them, and in so doing help lift the world – and each other – to a better place.

May this year be a year of renewed strength, life and healing that comes from the nourishment of living Torah.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2006-2007 James F. Brulé