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Achrei-Mot Kedoshim

05/08/2023 01:24:41 PM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

The verse that Anna spoke about this morning is part of what scholars call the “Holiness Code” - a list of rules or commandments that we must follow in order to be kadosh, holy. 

Rabbi Jonanathan Sacks, of blessed memory, pointed out that the list of rules seems eclectic. There are the lovely ethical rules - like the one Anna spoke about, “Don’t gossip,” or “don’t place a stumbling block before the blind.”  There are some rules of social justice - like “leave a corner of your field for the poor.” And there are some rules that just seem weird to us today: “don’t crossbreed livestock,” or “don’t wear wool with linen.”

Why is this diverse set of rules clumped all together here, in this one chapter? Rabbi Sacks suggested that the purpose of the Holiness Code is to create order for society. Each of these laws sets a boundary. Altogether, they give structure to Jewish life.

That’s what rules are about, right?  Giving us all structure, so we know how to behave.

But then in the midst of all these rules about order and boundaries, come two breathtakingly ambitious mitzvot. Mitzvot that are so abstract, they almost don’t seem Jewish. We’re a practical religion, right?  We’re about actions, not feelings?  

And yet, in this Torah portion, we have two commandments to feel love. 

That’s right, the Torah demands that we feel love.  And towards whom?

First,  ואהבת לרעך כמוך – You shall love your fellow as yourself. That’s a HIGH standard! Basically, you need to love EVERYONE in your community, and not just a little. You have to love them as much as you love yourself.

And then, a few verses later, we are told it is not enough to love רעך, your neighbor, your peer, as you love yourself.  You must also love the “ger”. The stranger, the foreigner. You must love the outsider, the one who stands out as being different, but who would probably like to be part of the group, and you must love her as you love yourself.  

Boy. I know when I was in middle school, I wished more of the kids had taken that mitzvah to heart! 

And now I know, this mitzvah is disappointingly difficult for adults to internalize, too.

Many commentators have asked the question - how is it possible to demand that a person feel love?  
Rabbi Sacks asked a different question. Why are these two commandments for love placed in the midst of a bunch of rules about boundaries?

As many of you know, I like to teach through stories.  I love that Anna taught us this morning with a folk story! Often I share stories from my own life, but I just finished a terrific book that is directly relevant to both of these questions. So instead, this morning I am going to share with you some of the stories from the book. It’s called American Midnight, by Adam Hothschild. It’s a history book, about the United States from 1917-1921, the years of World War I. While the war raged in Europe, back home our country was seized by a political oppression that makes the nastiness of today’s politics feel like child’s play. 

The history described in this book is very disturbing. You read it and ask, how could such things have happened in the land of the free?  And at the same time, it is comforting to see how things have changed. As bad as the outlook may be today, we have come a LONG way since the 1910s and 20s.

Much of the oppression of that time was enabled by a law called the Espionage Act, passed in June 1917. This law made it a crime to express opinions that might interfere with the war effort. That includes any opinions that objected to the war in the first place - many people thought America shouldn’t be fighting in a European war. It also included any protests to the military draft. 

At least two thousand people were imprisoned simply for expressing their beliefs. Many people were locked up for years, well beyond the end of the war. Conscientious objectors - people who were eligible for the draft but refused to serve - were jailed and tortured in military prisons, quite a few died.

Once the forces of oppression were unleashed, they didn’t stop with pacifists. Labor leaders and Socialists were targeted next. Hundreds were jailed on bogus criminal charges. Others were victims of lynchings, often led by off-duty policemen. Government censorship put nearly every leftist magazine or newspaper out of business. The Socialist Party never recovered as a political force in America.

So we see at least one answer to Rabbi Sacks’s question. Why is the commandment to love placed in the midst of a bunch of rules about boundaries? Because boundaries that are devoid of love, quickly become hateful. 

The wave of oppression that began with pacifists, then spread to all leftists, took on its ugliest, most violent form when it engulfed African-Americans and immigrants. Gerim. The stranger. 

Why do so many people find it hard to love the stranger?

Woodrow Wilson was president. Ironically, he is most famous for having started the League of Nations. But he was no lover of the stranger. In 1915, before we’d even entered the war, President Wilson warned against “hyphenated Americans” - German-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and so on. These people, he said, “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” 

But in 1919, Wilson appointed a left-leaning lawyer, A. Mitchell Palmer, as his Attorney General. Palmer was a Quaker, who are pacifists, and he was a supporter of women’s suffrage. Many progressives hoped that the tides were finally turning. 

But on the night of June 2nd of that year, a terrible tragedy changed everything. At targeted locations in eight different cities, at almost precisely the same moment, 8 bombs were detonated. One of the explosions was planted outside the home of A. Mitchell Palmer. By good fortune, Palmer and his family had gone upstairs ten minutes before, or they all would have died.

At the site of each explosion were leaflets, proclaiming: “You jailed us, you clubbed us, you deported us, you murdered us.”

Remember,  Palmer was the Attorney General. It was his job to make sure the terrorists were brought to justice.  But, in the words of Adam Hothschild: “Good detective work is difficult…finding scapegoats is easy.”

The terrorists who set off those bombs were never found. Instead, Palmer became obsessed with ridding the country of foreigners.

It is no wonder the Torah singles out the stranger as an object for our love. 

Palmer began authorizing raids on immigrants. They were rounded up indiscriminately, without bothering with warrants. All told, over 10,000 people were arrested in the Palmer raids.

For example -

In New York City, a group called the Union of Russian Workers offered night classes in a building they called the “People’s House.” One night, there was an algebra class, an ESL class, and an auto mechanics class in session. Little did they know that outside in the dark, the People’s House was being surrounded by long black cars of government agents. Suddenly, the agents burst into the building, brandishing billy clubs and guns. They dragged everyone out of their classrooms, roughing up anyone who resisted, and many who didn’t. They forced them all into the cars, and took them to -

Ellis Island. With the Statue of Liberty standing proudly nearby. Ellis Island, that symbol of America as a country of immigrants, had been turned by Attorney General Palmer into an overcrowded prison.

Rabbi Sacks offered a different answer to his own question. Perhaps the reason the commandments to love are place in this Torah portion, is because love can only thrive in an ordered universe. 

Rabbi Sacks aimed this teaching primarily at parents. He worried that parents who don’t set boundaries: “leave their children dangerously unprepared for a world that will not indulge their wishes or desire for attention.”

But the implications are even more serious on the scale of nations. When the people entrusted to enforce the law begin pressing, and even breaking, its boundaries, what emerges can be truly terrifying. No events in our day have come close to the horrors of Pamer’s day. And yet, concerns about lawmakers today boundaries remain all to real.

As hundreds and then thousands of detainees were piling up on Ellis Island, Palmer and his allies hit a roadblock. Deportations had to be approved by the Immigration Bureau. And the Immigration Bureau, at the time, was under the Labor Department. 

The Secretary of Labor was away on personal leave - quite possibly because he was appalled by what was going on in the government, and he felt helpless to stop it. The Deputy Secretary had just resigned to run for Senate. And so that left the third in command, a man named Louis F. Post, to serve as Acting Secretary of Labor. 

And Post - at age 70, near the end of his career with little to lose - refused to sign deportation orders. 

Post stands out as a remarkable, unsung hero of this era. He single handedly saved hundreds of innocent people from deportation, and quite possibly was responsible for turning back the tide of oppression.

Palmer and his allies tried everything they could to undermine and discredit Post. But he was SMART. 

Post figured the best defense is a good offense. He called all the major newspapers, and told them the story of a Polish-American dry cleaner, with a wife and three children, a leader in his church and no police record, who had been arrested without a warrant, because the Communist party had mailed him a membership card. The man had never requested the card or responded to the overture, but now he was facing deportation. 

Post began to win over public opinion.

Palmer tried to have Post removed from office. But Post was so persuasive at his hearings, he won over congress, too. 

Most remarkable of all, when the actual Secretary of Labor finally returned to his job, he, too, began to stand up to Palmer, inspired by Post’s success.

At times of oppression, some of the greatest damage is in the silence. The socialist party all but disappeared, because most of its members quietly slipped away. You arrest and intimidate enough people, and everyone else just stays home.

So why does the Torah command us to love the stranger? Not only to be fair and just to the stranger, but to feel love. Because passively following the rules is not sufficient. Louis Post, and others who maybe I’ll tell you about on another Shabbat - Kate Richards O’hare, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Dr. Marie Equi - turned back the tide of oppression by infusing love into a system of hateful rules.

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784