Parshat Kedoshim — the rich and powerful on trial

Parshat Kedoshim — the rich and powerful on trial

Parshat Kedoshim holds a very special place in my heart. This affection is not merely because the Torah portion provides a succinct mission statement of Jewish religious life: “Strive to be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Nor is my personal attachment to Parshat Kedoshim based solely on the fact that it includes arguably the most famous verse of the Hebrew Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18).

My particular fondness for Parshat Kedoshim dates to a class I conducted 25 years ago or so for aspiring Torah readers. The eager students were all 10-year-olds, mostly drawn from the afternoon Hebrew school of Congregation B’nai Sholom of Newington, Connecticut, which I then led as rabbi. My daughter, Shira, was enrolled with them. Though she was a Hebrew day school student, she elected to join her B’nai Sholom friends in mastering this new liturgical skill.

The Torah portion we studied? Parshat Kedoshim.

In the final stages of the class, each student prepared a single aliyah to be read during congregational services on Shabbat morning. Students were granted the further privilege of selecting the worshipper who would be called to the Torah for their debut reading. Shira, to my great delight, designated her grandfather — my father — to receive the honor. My equally delighted father, who rarely left his home congregation for Shabbat, made an exception. He proudly approached the Torah and recited the brachot. Earlier, he had presented his granddaughter with an elegant silver yad — a Torah pointer — inscribed with her name, the date, and “Parshat Kedoshim.”

I cherish Parshat Kedoshim because it evokes a moment when I felt I truly had a hand in the loving transmission of our most sacred and defining values through the generations.

The first words Shira read that Shabbat morning were from Leviticus 19:15, “Lo ta’asu avel ba-mishpat” — “Do not pervert justice.” Each year as I review Parshat Kedoshim in preparation for my own congregational Torah reading, I still hear this phrase in the sweet voice and distinctive cadences of my (once) 10-year-old daughter.

“Lo tisa f’nei dal,” the verse continues. “Do not show partiality to the poor. V’lo tehdar p’nei gadol” — “and practice no favoritism toward the great.”

Commenting on the word “gadol” (here translated as “great”), Ibn Ezra explains: “Great: That is, of great wealth.” Rashi leaves no ambiguity as to proper treatment of the accused: “Do not say, ‘This man is rich; he is a prominent, powerful person. How can I put him to shame and witness his humiliation? This itself would be a crime punishable by law!’”

The Torah anticipates the natural sympathy a judge or jury is likely to feel toward the poor and powerless, as well as the sense of intimidation and diffidence that those of more limited means and influence might experience when asked to pass judgment on a defendant of truly lofty station. Leviticus 19:15 demands we suppress both these misguided temptations as corrosive to the system of justice we are sworn to uphold and administer: “B’tzedek tishpot amitecha” — “Rather, you must judge your neighbor justly.”

Equal justice — not economic solidarity with the needy — is the duty of judges and juries. Justice trumps misplaced reverence for the rich and powerful, as it does an otherwise laudable respect for position and high office. An individual on trial before the law is to be regarded as “amitecha” — your neighbor, your peer, your equal, your fellow citizen. Nothing less; certainly nothing more — claims to putative greatness and privilege notwithstanding. To paraphrase: “Judge your neighbor as yourself.”

In her analysis of our verse, the much-esteemed Israeli biblical scholar and educator Nechama Leibowitz cites the Latin legal axiom “Fiat iustitia ruat cælum” — “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Parshat Kedoshim anticipates this wisdom by demanding justice be done though the great and powerful and wealthy fall.

Abraham Lincoln provided his own succinct mission statement for the American legal system: “Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.”

Parshat Kedoshim points the way: “Show no favoritism to the great.” We Americans received this sacred and defining value from our Founding Fathers. It is our sworn duty to inscribe the precious sentiment on our own hearts, to transmit it effectively to our children… and gratefully to cherish the privilege.

“Lo ta’asu avel ba-mishpat”: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor; and practice no favoritism toward the great. Rather, you must judge your neighbor — your fellow citizen — with equal justice.”

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