In The Shadow of Greatness - Parshat Vayikra
In the old time cheders of Europe, the first book of Torah taught to boys was sefer Vayikra. With so many statutes and laws, Vayikra afforded a fresh start to young Yidden, a solid grounding in the halachot that would inform their subsequent Talmudic studies.
So Sefer Vayikra deserves a fresh start and some ‘social distancing’ from our present woes.
What glory is rendered to Torah if it is kept in isolation from real life and current events? So forgive me if you have had enough Coronavirus Torah. This derasha is no exception.
Let us commence with the woes:
What began with social distancing in shul has led to social distancing in supermarket checkout lines and other public spaces and, as of midnight tonight, will notch up further with the Governor’s Shelter at Home order. Considering the threats we face and heartbreaking scenes of overflowing New York hospitals and desperate staff, these measures are understandable.
However, life is increasingly challenging and nobody has been spared. I have been thinking about the chilling description ofmakat bechorot (lehavdil)the tenth plague:
...וַתְּהִ֛י צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת
And there was a great cry in Egypt for there was no home without dead. -Shemot 12:30
Of course, some have it easier than others. There is a social media fad making the rounds featuring photos of celebrities holding up signs reading: “I stay home for...” followed by a list of loved ones and at-risk groups in society. Immunocompromised people. Senior citizens. My neighbor undergoing chemo. These celebrities have my respect and appreciation for doing their part to encourage their devotees to ‘flatten the curve.’
However, it is also apparent from their photos that they have ample homes, amusements, and cash to weather the storm. I keep thinking of my colleague and friend in New York who has been in quarantine for weeks with his wife and children, 5, 3, and six-months old. They live in a small New York City apartment which, he says, is better than most since they at least have a balcony. Then too, he is richly blessed to have family members with whom to shelter, money for instacart and, most critically, his health (ba”h.)
These types of thoughts are fertile ground for a guilt complex that arises from an awareness of how many of us are amply blessed under the present circumstances. Compared with the huddled masses of New York, many of us have homes, lawns and more space in general. If so, why have I been so stressed? Why is my patience wearing thin? Why do I wake up depressed?
Cue the guilt, and cue the Seforno on Parshat Vayikra.
אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָשִׂ֖יא יֶֽחֱטָ֑א וְעָשָׂ֡ה אַחַ֣ת מִכָּל־מִצְוֺת֩ ה" א-להיו אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹא־תֵעָשֶׂ֛ינָה בִּשְׁגָגָ֖ה וְאָשֵֽׁם׃
אֽוֹ־הוֹדַ֤ע אֵלָיו֙ חַטָּאת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר חָטָ֖א בָּ֑הּ וְהֵבִ֧יא אֶת־קָרְבָּנ֛וֹ שְׂעִ֥יר עִזִּ֖ים זָכָ֥ר תָּמִֽים׃
וְסָמַ֤ךְ יָדוֹ֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ הַשָּׂעִ֔יר וְשָׁחַ֣ט אֹת֔וֹ בִּמְק֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִשְׁחַ֥ט אֶת־הָעֹלָ֖ה לִפְנֵ֣י ה" חַטָּ֖את הֽוּא׃
In case it is anasi(chieftain) who incurs guilt by doing unwittingly any of the things which by the commandment of the LORD his G-d ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt—or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge—he shall bring as his offering a male goat without blemish. He shall lay his hand upon the goat’s head, and it shall be slaughtered at the spot where the burnt offering is slaughtered before the LORD; it is a sin offering. - Vayikra 4:22-24
These are instructions fornesi’im, leaders of the people if they should inadvertently violate particular statutes of Torah.
Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (b. 1475 Bologna) observes that this passage lacks the conditional word,אם- “if” the nasi sins. Rather, the law is framed aswhenthe leader sins,
כִּי אָמְנָם זֶה דָבָר מָצוּי שֶׁיֶּחֱטָא
...for it is a virtual certainty that he will make mistakes. – Seforno, Vayikra 4:22
That is what it is to be a leader.
With regard to this topic, Rabbi Binyamin Krohn, Rav of Young Israel of Teaneck (who played saxophone next to my clarinet in our high school jazz band) cites a Talmudic teaching from Bava Batra 17a:
ארבעה מתו בעטיו של נחש ואלו הן בנימין בן יעקב ועמרם אבי משה וישי אבי דוד וכלאב בן דוד.
There are four in history who died only because of the serpent [whose cunning deeds in Gan Eden led to Hashem limiting the human lifespan, ie the following individuals died sinless] and they are: Binyamin son of Yaakov, Amram father of Moshe, Yishai father of David, and Kalev son of David.
What is notable about the four notables is that none of them were as famous as their respective kin. Certainly, Binyamin was remarkable, but not on the scale of his father Yaakov. Amram too was exceptional, but he did not rival Moshe for leadership or fame, nor did Yishai rival his son David, nor Kalev his father.
In other words, it is conspicuous in the Talmud that the sinless ones werenotthe leaders. Conversely, the real leaders -Yaakov, Moshe and David – did not die sinless. As Seforno states, real leaders make mistakes.
The present pandemic casts us all into leadership roles. Whether or not we have celebrity Instagram followers, corporations, congregations, or households full of dependents, we must all forge a path through this jungle of uncertainty, confronting ever new and ever escalating issues, and using our best judgment to determine an appropriate course of action. Even (perhaps especially) the most isolated among us must confront a dangerous new reality where minute decisions count for more. Our choices might spread or stop disease, or shalom bayit, or ease the loneliness of others.
Surely we will make mistakes and step on each other’s toes, figuratively or literally. But if this novel virus gives us anything new, it is the opportunity to lead ourselves and our society through unprecedented times.
When my generation expresses veneration for the Greatest Generation, it is with gratitude not only for the heroes of the day, but for all members of society whose daily decisions helped move life and our country me’afeilah l’orah, to a brighter tomorrow. We are certainly not the Greatest Generation confronting WWII. However, we are living through unprecedented times, doing the best we can to make the right decisions. May Hashem bless our efforts, great and small, and grant us wisdom and strength we need onward unto victory.
Small decisions in a drive-thru
Last week, picking up a drive-through coffee, I reached out to pay for my drink and was told it had already been paid for. By whom? The previous driver.
Feeling grateful, I asked if I could pay for the fellow behind me and how much?
'Sure! $16.87' (I covered $5.)
Before pulling away from the window, I asked if the pay-it-forward scheme had just begun.
‘Not at all,’ replied the cashier. “You’re just the eighth car!”