Parashat Devarim

Parashat Devarim

Shabbat Chazon: Keeping corona kosher and being less judgmental

Rabbi for Lifelong Learning, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Conservative

If you are like me, you’re a little tired of the tie-ins of the weekly Torah portion to the ongoing pandemic. Personally, I am tired of the connections not because I don’t think the Torah has wisdom for us during these trying times, but more because I was hopeful that this mess would have been over by now. However, alas, as I type these thoughts out, we are far away from a conclusion. So, here comes another dvar Torah about coronavirus and Torah, one that I also think is appropriate as we approach one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar, the observance of Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of Av.

Jewish tradition teaches that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel was a result of sinat chinam, often translated as “baseless hatred.” Countless stories from Jewish literature try to illustrate examples of sinat chinam and its destructive power. These message are not to make us feel more Jewish guilt, but rather to help us correct our ways and emphasize the importance of treating every person with respect and kindness. I have found that the easiest way to fall into the trap of sinat chinam is by harshly judging others. This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, with the help of the Babylonian Talmud, cautions us against harsh judgment not only in criminal justice but judgment of each other as well.

Toward the beginning of the Torah reading, we learn the important principle: “You shall not be partial in judgment: Hear out low and high alike. Fear no one, for judgment is the Almighty’s…” (Deuteronomy 1:17). On the surface, the Torah appears to be teaching that all legal cases should be adjudicated equally and fairly, no matter how important the case or the people involved. The Babylonian Talmud takes this a step further in the context of justice. The question is debated: Should all matters be judged strictly according to the principles of the law or perhaps a bit softer through a means of legal mediation and compromise (known as peshara in the Jewish legal system)?

The Talmud tells us that Moses, the great lawgiver, was keen on relying on the strict letter of the law, preferring the courts to mete out justice accordingly; however, his brother Aaron, it is said, was “a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, and he would apply peace between one person and the other” (BT Sanhedrin 6b). Meaning, Aaron preferred a method that was less strict, looking instead for compromise rather than unbending adjudication by the court system and was basically, shall we say, less judgemental. Perhaps we too should try and follow the example of Aaron the High Priest, who preferred to look at situations with less of a judgemental eye instead opting for a softer approach.

Case in point: the judgment we all face for our choices of what I call corona kashrut or corona kosher. You know what I mean. Everyone right now is trying to figure out how to keep proper social distancing protocols for themselves and their families. As such everyone is creating their own forms of keeping corona kosher, the definition of which varies wildly. Although there seem to be degrees of acceptability within friendship groups and extended families, there almost always is a bit of judgment that comes when hearing of the practice of others.

Case in point, a personal story: About a month ago my wife, daughter, and I made a trip down to Norfolk, Virginia, to visit my parents. I had not seen them in many months and we wanted to squeeze in an opportunity while the number of covid-19 cases was stable before things possibly got worse again (which inevitably they did). While traveling to Virginia, by car no less, and stopping only for gas, I worried about being judged. What would people say about me traveling during the pandemic? What would they say about my corona kashrut? I was so concerned about being judged that I even avoided telling people that I was going to see my parents. I kept it quiet for fear of judgment.

It’s the judgment of others that worries me, but who are we to judge? Do we know why someone might have made a choice that is different than us? Do we truly know the whole story at the root of their choices? After all, the verse in Deuteronomy tells us that judgment should be left only to the Almighty. 

I cannot help but think about how the world would feel now if all of us would be more forgiving in our judgment of others. It is my hope and prayer that as we approach Tisha b’Av during this pandemic, that we heed the words of the Torah and the teachings of our rabbis, to be more like Aaron, to be less judgmental of others, and therefore help us to create a kinder, gentler world.

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