“My dear Rabbi,” the longtime congregant wrote to the congregation’s new religious leader, “I appreciated your sermon on race relations. It was thoughtful and well-crafted. I did, however, miss hearing about Torah and religion. Perhaps your next sermon can be on something Jewish.”
“Dear Rabbi,” the same congregant wrote a week later, “like your sermon on race relations last week, your talk on reproductive choice last night was very good. Once again, however, I missed hearing about Torah and religion. Perhaps your next sermon?”
“Rabbi,” came the note a week later, “immigration and what we should do about the people illegally crossing the border? I thought this was a synagogue? When are you going to address Jewish topics?”
At the end of last week’s Torah portion we were instructed on the proper treatment of the altar in the Tabernacle, the portable Temple our ancestors carried with them during their desert wanderings. Specifically it states, “Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”
This week’s Portion contains the first body of laws explicated in the Torah. Known as Sefer HaBrit, the portion lays out a combination of moral imperatives and social standards.
The rabbis of old took note of the juxtaposition between the two portions. They wondered what might be learned from the connection between the rules that appear at the end of last week’s portion for how we were to treat the sacred altar and those expounded upon in this week’s portion that address social boundaries and responsibilities. Ultimately, they arrived at a moral and religious imperative and taught,
“Great is human dignity, for it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.”
The great commentator Rashi took this a step further when he noted that the Sanhedrin, the seat of the ancient rabbinic court, and the Temple were next to one another. Their physical placement makes it clear that, from the very beginning of Jewish tradition, there was to be a connection between social priorities and religious observance. The two aren’t separate. Our prayers on Shabbat are directly connected to how we treat one another. As one scholar puts it,
Rather than two separate realms that have nothing to do with each other, this confluence of verses reminds us that religion has everything to do with justice, compassion, and decency, and that how we behave should reflect our spiritual and religious convictions.
A sermon on how we treat people who may look, love, dress or act differently than us is a religious sermon.
A talk on individual bodily autonomy or an exploration of when life begins is a religious talk.
And a sermon on our responsibility to welcome the stranger is a religious sermon.
“Great is human dignity, for it overrides a prohibition in the Torah.” As important as the specifically religious laws and statutes in our tradition may be, they only become sacred, spiritual laws when they lead us to treat one another with love and respect.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen
Friends, right now there are so many TSTI members who are looking for meaningful ways to go to Israel, to learn, to witness, to volunteer. Cantor Moses and several members had planned to go at the beginning of March with Federation however that trip did not end up being viable. Cantor Moses is researching another trip that will go April 14-18. If you are interested please be in touch.
If you would rather go closer to the summer, Rabbi Cohen is researching options to be in Israel at the beginning of July. We are committed to helping as many members as possible get to Israel in meaningful ways at this very important time.