Parashat Emor: The vertical relationship

Is the Shavuot Jew superior to the Pessah Jew? In last week's commentary I wrote about the count (sefira) of 49 days between Pessah and Shavuot, days of "Hol hamoed."

Is the Shavuot Jew superior to the Pessah Jew? In last week's commentary I wrote about the count (sefira) of 49 days between Pessah and Shavuot, days of "Hol hamoed," (similar to the intermediate days of a festival) which express the connection between Pessah (the beginning of our inception as a nation) and Shavuot, the day on which we received the Torah as well as the day we celebrate the Festival of First Fruits, which are brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. From this perspective, the Pessah Jew reflects God's covenant with Abraham; he feels a profound familial connection with every Jew, a blood-bond which impels him/her to share in the Jewish fate, even if it costs his/her life. He/she connects with the stories of the origins of the family-nation, enjoys the special foods and major occasions of familial celebration or mourning (Pessah matza, for example), and feels him/herself to be an integral part of the Jewish community. The Shavuot Jew, on the other hand, relates to God's covenant with the nation at Mount Sinai, after the Divine revelation of the Torah. This Jew resides in Israel - after all, the festival celebrates the bringing of first fruits to the Temple - and apparently accepts all the commandments, as attested to by the national proclamation preceding this second covenant, "We shall perform [the Divine commands] and we shall internalize [or understand] them." Whereas the major motivation for the Pessah Jew is his horizontal relationship with the Jewish people, the major motivation for the Shavuot Jew is his vertical relationship with God. There is yet one more aspect to the Shavuot Jew which must be emphasized: his relationship to God ought to generate a profound horizontal relationship with every human being. After all, if indeed "God created the human being in His image" (Gen. 1:27), each human contains a portion of that Divine essence; if part of God is within me and part of God is within you, then we share a permanent bond. Hence our Bible commands: "Observe the Sabbath day [a testimony of God's creation of all earthly creatures] to keep it holy… in order that your gentile male servant and your gentile female servant may rest like you" (Deut. 5:12, 14). Apparently this is because your servant is endowed with that same "image of God" that gives you your ultimate and inviolate value. This is precisely how Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th-century biblical commentator) understands what is probably the most famous verse in the Bible: "You shall love your neighbor like yourself; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:18). Says Ibn Ezra: "One should love doing good to his friend as he would wish to do for himself, and the reason that this verse concludes with the words 'I am the Lord' is because 'I am the Lord' who has created you as one" (Ibn Ezra ad loc). Perhaps the most outstanding expression of this principle is the introduction to the daily prayer written by Rabbi Haim Vital (an outstanding disciple of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria of 16th-century Safed), and has been adopted by almost every prayer book of the Oriental Jewish communities (Edot Hamizrah): "Before one begins one's prayer, it is proper to say, 'Behold, I accept upon myself the commandment of 'you shall love your neighbor like yourself.' " Apparently, the purpose of attempting to come close to the Almighty in prayer is so that we might come close to our fellow humans. And this may be the deepest reason why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot: the true Shavuot Jews feels an obligation to bring every human being, even a Moabite woman, under the wings of the Divine Presence, at least to accept the Seven Noahide Laws. And from what we've written thus far, it would seem that the Shavuot Jew is far more complete - and praiseworthy - than the Pessah Jew. But there is one flaw that often manifests itself in the Shavuot Jew: his closeness to God sometimes not only fails to enhance his closeness to every human being, but removes him/her even further. As Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye suggests: "'With God did Noah walk' (Gen. 6:9); with God, and not with humanity, so that Noah neither remonstrated with God on behalf of the world nor did he attempt to bring the errant children closer to their father in heaven, as did Abraham." Rabbi A.Y. Hakohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, says it very strongly: "The soul of the sinners of Israel before the coming of the Messiah - those who are connected with love to all matters affecting the welfare of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and its nation - is more perfected than the soul of the religious faithful of Israel who lack that fundamental feeling for the communal well-being." In other words, a Pessah Jew who truly loves and sacrifices for his nation can sometimes be on a higher plane than the Shavuot Jew who is careful not to transgress God's commandments but lacks true love for every human being. Postscript: Rabbi Yisrael Salanter would tell the following story: One day he was detained in Kovno, and had to spend Yom Kippur there. When he entered the synagogue before the Kol Nidre opening prayer, the beadle, recognizing the important guest, invited him to sit along the eastern wall, but Rabbi Yisrael preferred to stand in the back. He noticed a man praying with great devotion, mouthing the following prayer: "My Lord, before I was born, I was not worthy; now that I have been born, it is as if I had never been born. I stand before You as a vessel filled with shame and humiliation." As the man mouthed these words, tears were coursing down his cheeks. Rabbi Yisrael asked to be seated next to that person, and was much inspired by his seatmate. But when the gabbai asked Rabbi Yisrael's seatmate to accept the honor of binding the Torah (gelila), an entirely different personality seemed to emerge. When offered gelila, the man grew visibly angry. "Gelila?! Gelila is for fools," he muttered. "Give it to someone else." He looked as if he were about to suffer a stroke! The great rabbi turned to his seatmate in confusion. "But didn't you just weep over the fact that you are not worthy, that you are like a vessel filled with humiliation?" "Yes, in comparison to the Almighty I am not worthy," answered the other, "but in comparison to these jokers and ignoramuses, I deserve a far greater honor than they!" The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.