Dignity of Human Beings, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

on Friday, 25 September 2015. Posted in Rabbi

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

In 2013, Mason Wartman was a 25 year-old Babson College graduate working on Wall Street as a stock equity researcher. He loved his job, but he had a dream: to open his open his own business and be his own boss. Wartman returned to his native Philadelphia, and with $250,000 of his own savings, opened Rosa’s Pizza, named for his beloved mother. His shop was modeled on what he had come to love in New York City – $1 per slice, $8 per pie, pizza.

Shortly after he opened Rosa’s, a customer asked if Wartman had many people who were homeless come into the store. Philadelphia is the poorest large city in the U.S., and Wartman answered with a resounding “yes.” So his customer bought one slice of pizza, but gave him $2. “Use the extra dollar to give a homeless person a slice,” she said. Wartman ran to a nearby store to purchase post-it notes. He wrote on the post-it, indicating that it was good for a free slice of pizza. He put it up on his wall.

His customer had been inspired by a recently revised more than 100-year old tradition from Naples, Italy called café sospeso – “suspended coffee” – where coffeehouse customers pay for two cups, but consume only one, leaving a note for the second cup on behalf of a person who cannot afford to buy one.

Within hours of Wartman putting up the post-it note, a down-on-his-luck man who purchased pizza from him often came into the pizza place. “I have only 78¢,” he said. “Keep your money,” Wartman replied, “a customer bought a slice for you.” And so it began.

Now, customers regularly pay it forward at Rosa’s, pre-purchasing slices of pizza. The walls are covered with post-it notes of every color. Formerly homeless folks who were beneficiaries, have returned to buy pizza for others, giving back to and through the business that sustained them. Wartman’s pizzeria has been financially successful, and in just two and a half years, he has give out over 23,000 slices of pizza to people too poor to afford even a $1 slice.

I don’t know if Mason Wartman is Jewish. It doesn’t really matter to me. But I do have to wonder if Wartman is – or the Italian coffee shop owners are – familiar with the texts in Leviticus regarding reaping the corners of the fields. We read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”[1]

Torah commentators are quick to point out that the Leviticus text doesn’t say “give” the gleanings to the poor, but rather “leave” the gleanings for the poor. The poor have the right to take the food for themselves, much like the poor who enter Rosa’s Pizzeria take a post-it note, use it like a $1 bill, and get the warm, cooked food. Moshe Alshikh, a 16th century Biblical commentator, teaches that allowing the poor person to gather the gleanings – and I would add to use a post-it note dollar bill for a slice of pizza – preserves the dignity of the individual. No one has to ask for a handout, to experience the shame or embarrassment of begging.

A story in the Talmud offers a similar perspective. Abba was a blood letter (an early medical practitioner) who was known for his generosity. His patients paid as much of his fee as they could afford, leaving the money in a box in an outside room so that he could not see who had paid and who had not. He did this so as not to embarrass the poor.[2]

A contemporary example of preserving human dignity takes place at a soup kitchen in Jerusalem where the people who enter receive honor as well as food. It looks like a restaurant, however, patrons receive no bill at the end. They serve 500 meals a day and keep a large wooden box near the exit so diners can leave anything they wish. Many leave a napkin with a heart-felt thank you message.

Preserving human dignity – in Hebrew k’vod habri-ot – is a funda­mental Jewish value. It stems from the passage in Torah stating that humanity was created b’tzelem elohim, “in the image of God.”[3] All humans originate from God and reflect that image. The early Rabbis argued that this text requires us to look at every other person as kin – the wicked and the righteous, the rich and the poor – and all who normally would see their antithesis as “other” are forced, instead, to him as “brother.” Or her as sister.

Preserving the dignity of the individual is not limited to the poor. It is so core to the Jewish way of life that it extends even to those who commit sins or crimes. For example, Torah teaches that if a person has sinned and is put to death by hanging, his corpse may not remain on the stake overnight, but must be buried the same day. To not bury immediately is consid­ered an affront to God, God’s image, and the human being created in that image.[4]

Also, in Exodus, we learn that a person who steals an ox and later slaughters or sells it is punished five times the value of the ox, while a person who steals a sheep and later slaughters or sells it is required to pay only four times its value.[5] Why the difference? The Talmud teaches: God is mindful of the dignity of the thief.[6]

The sheep thief will be punished to a lesser degree than the ox thief because of the indignity the sheep thief suffered in having to carry the animal, while the ox thief had the luxury of the ox walking on its own.

The concept of preserving human dignity sometimes runs up against another mitzvah and we are confronted with which should take priority. For instance, pretty much anyone who reads or chants from the Torah makes mistakes. Do we correct the Torah reader in order to preserve the accuracy, even dignity, of the Torah or do we let it slide, even if the meaning of the Torah text gets mangled perhaps to the point of it being meaningless or even offensive?

Jacob ben Asher, a 12th century Biblical commentator from Cord­ova, Spain, taught that we let it slide. Maimonides, who lived 100 years earlier and also was from Cordova, said that we correct the person. And the debate has raged on for centuries. Just this past July, Rabbi Jonathan Raziel from Ma-alei Adumim, Israel, ruled in the Orthodox community that it is forbidden to correct mistakes in order to preserve the dignity of the Torah reader. His ruling came in response to a 15-year old secular boy who came to the synagogue to read from the Torah to celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah. Congregants shouted out corrections and the boy ran from the bimah, leaving the shul, never to return. Rabbi Raziel seeks to protect others from such public embarrassment.

A recent event in our nation has me thinking a lot about the dignity of human beings.

It was July 13th, the day on which Sandra Bland died. Bland was the African-American woman from Naperville, Illinois found dead in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. The circumstances of her death aren’t 100% certain.

What is certain is that a state trooper pulled Bland over on July 10th for failing to use her turn signal when she changed lanes. When the officer returned to her car after writing up a traffic violation warn­ing, he told Bland to put out her cigarette. She asked why, given that she was in her own car. He then ordered her out of the vehicle. When she refused, he told her that she was under arrest. She asked what she did wrong and the officer answered that she failed to obey an order. She continued to refuse. He opened her door, told her more than a dozen times to get out, and tried to pull her out. She continued to refuse and he threatened to use his Taser on her, shouting “I will light you up; get out! Now!” She then got out. The officer told her that she was going to jail.

They moved to the passenger side of the car, and the officer’s dashcam was unable to record their movements. But she was heard crying and screaming. An eyewitness told the local news that the officer tossed her to the ground and put his knee to her neck.

She was arrested for allegedly kicking him, and for being argument­ative and uncooperative. She was charged with assaulting the officer. She was placed in a jail cell, alone, and found dead three days later. The coroner ruled her death a suicide and her family has asked for an additional investigation.

The FBI and Texas Department of Public Safety have launched an investigation into Bland’s death. The officer who arrested Bland was placed on administrative duties for violating procedures for traffic stops. The Waller County district attorney is investigating her death as a possible murder.

Sandra Bland was active in the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter. Started after the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed in broad daylight by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014, Black Lives Matter’s aim is to highlight how for blacks in this country, the system of justice that is supposed to serve all of us far too often does the opposite, resulting in their deaths. Sandra Bland and Michael Brown are just two of the names and stories I could share with you. From the last year alone, I found 16 separate incidents of black people killed by police for such offenses as disturbing the peace, selling loose cigarettes, holding a toy gun, holding a pill bottle that the police mistook for a gun, and disrupting traffic.

Many of us will say, “why black lives matter?” Shouldn’t all lives matter? Of course, yes. That’s Torah’s opening message when we read that every human being is created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, meaning that we are all the same. And yet, even thousands of years ago, people looked at each other and saw dif­ferences, not similarities. Thus, our ancient Rabbis taught that we came “from the four corners of the earth – yellow clay and white sand, black loam and red soil – so that the earth can declare to no part of humanity that it does not belong here, that this soil is not its rightful home.”[7]

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster writes about being created in God’s image: “We are all sacred; each of us is some­one’s child. I didn’t truly understood how little [this] matters in real life until this past October, when I sat in a church in Ferguson with several hundred other clergy and was asked to imagine that instead of Michael Brown, it was my child lying dead on the ground for four hours, shot by police. I’m the mother of two young children, and as I took part in this chilling exercise, two thoughts flashed in my mind. The first was that if as Jews we really believe that all lives matter, we are obligated to speak out against a system of violence in which someone’s child is shot by a police officer every 28 hours.[8]

And the second was that as a white parent, the reality was it would be someone else’s child. And that is a horrible truth in America today. Every parent has a right to a world in which his or her child can grow up in safety, and every parent certainly has a right not to fear that the police will be the ones who violate that safety.”

The black community is angry, and that anger is justified. We, too, would be angry, if police killed Jews, especially young Jews, with little or no consequences. And because we are a part of the human family, we have a responsibility to hear the concerns about police violence and accountability that the Black Lives Matter activists demand. And as descendants of the Biblical prophets, we are called upon to heed their words. After all, the prophet Malachi calls out to humanity: Have we not all one parent? Has not one God created us?

Hearing the concerns is only the first step. We must speak out – and not just following yet another tragic death. It doesn’t matter that the black population of New Hampshire is only 1%. We need to engage in the struggle for justice and for what the black community seeks – better schools, better wages, better opportunities, and end to the cycle of poverty – because preserving the human dignity of each and every person requires us to. And because Torah requires that we love our neighbor as ourselves. This is why I joined with New Hampshire Voices of Faith this past year at the vigils and rallies to demand a moral and humane budget.

As black men and women continue to die because of the actions of police, those of us who fail to speak out hold some responsibility. The Maharal of Prague, a 16th-century sage, stated that individual piety pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil, and that a person will be held account­able for not preventing wickedness when capable of doing so.[9]

One danger of silence in the face of evil is that it can imply accep­tance or possibly even support. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from pre-World War II Nazi Germany, spoke in 1963 at the March on Washington for civil rights. He stated that under Hitler’s rule, he had learned about the problem of apathy toward fellow human beings: “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and most tragic problem is silence.”[10]

And we must speak even if it feels futile. Elie Wiesel tells the story of the righteous man of Sodom who walked the streets crying out against the injustice and evil in that city. He was derided and made fun of. One day, a young person passed him and said, “For years you have urged the people to repent, and yet no one has changed. Why do you continue?” The righteous man answered, “When I first came, I protested because I hoped to change the people and the city. Today, I know I cannot. I continue to cry out, because if I don’t, they will have changed me.”

The prophet Amos chastises those who sit content amid horrific injustice. He said:[11]

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,

And to those who feel secure on the mountains of Samaria. …

Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory,

And stretch themselves upon their couches,

And eat lambs from the flock,

And calves from the midst of the stall;

Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp. …

Who drink wine in bowls,

And anoint themselves in the finest oils,

But are not grieved on the ruin of Joseph!

Our commitment must be to build a new world of k’vod habri-ot, human dignity. An activist with Hands Up United – another black empowerment organization formed in the wake of the Michael Brown killing – declared: “I don’t want to see a better tomorrow, I want to see a better forever.” This is our task. The time is now. Shanah tovah.

[1]Leviticus 19:9-10; a similar text appears at Leviticus 23:22.

[2]Babylonian Talmud Ta-anit 21b.

[3]Genesis 1:27.

[4]Deuteronomy 21:22–23.

[5]Exodus 21:37.

[6]Mekhilta de-R. Yishmael, Mishpatim 13.

[7]Yalkut Shimoni 1:1.

[8]According to MXGM.

[9]R. Judah Loew, Netivot Olam, Shaar Hatochaha, end of chapter 2.

[10]American Jewish Congress, Congress Bi-Weekly 31/8 (May 11, 1964): 6.

[11]Amos 6:1, 4-6.

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