Parshas Kedoshim 5784: Social Justice

In Parshas Kedoshim the Torah commands us regarding many mitzvos bein adam la’chavairo, mitzvos that govern interaction between man and fellow man.  A person must revere his parents, pay a worker his wages on time, leave a corner of the field for the poor person, honor an elderly person and rise before a talmid chacham.  A person may not hate his brother in his heart, he may not take revenge, nor bear a grudge, he may not curse a deaf person or put a stumbling block before a blind person.  He must love for his fellow what he loves for himself.  He may not lie to his fellow, he may not steal or cheat, he must judge his fellow with righteousness.  He must love the convert and take care of the welfare of the poor in society.

A Torah Jew must mold his personality, his essence, and his character traits, over a lifetime of avodah, to strive to perfect his relationships between man and fellow man, and man and G-d.   In regard to morality and fairness when carrying out judgements, the pasuk tells us:

לֹאתַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל, בַּמִּשְׁפָּטלֹאתִשָּׂא פְנֵידָל, וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל בְּצֶדֶק, תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ, You shall not commit injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or glorify a great man; with righteousness you shall judge your fellow (Vayikra 19:15).

In regard to not favoring the poor man or glorifying the wealthy man, Rashi (ibid) explains: You shall not favor a poor person: you shall not say, he is poor, and this rich man is obligated to sustain him, therefore, I will rule in favor of the poor man, and he will obtain financial support in a clean and honorable fashion; you shall not honor a wealthy person: you shall not say, “He is a rich man, and of noble lineage, how can I embarrass him and rule against him in court? There is great punishment for doing such a thing!”  Therefore, the Torah warns you not to honor (unfairly) the rich man in court.

The facts of the case have to be examined through the lens of halacha, irrespective of the financial status of the litigants standing before the judges.  The court must be kasher and yosher, and rule al pi halacha, without incorrectly pitying the poor person, or violating the law by flattering the rich person.  A Jew who sees Hashem before him always, will always act according to G-d’s will, not the dictates of society, nor his own will, nor the pressures of those around him.

Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik, the Rav zt’l, relates a story that perfectly illustrates the prohibition of wrongly flattering a person in judgement, when the flawed judgement is based on material wealth, and not the emes (truth) of halacha (Jewish law).  The Rav relates, “There were many stories about my grandfather (Rav Chaim Brisker zt’l), and please, I am not trying to somehow ‘sell’ you my grandfather. First of all, he does not need to be sold. And secondly, I am not a chassid in the sense that I tell stories in order to glorify and magnify a person.  There were many stories about my grandfather’s intellect.  There is no doubt that he possessed great intellectual ability… He had an excellent head, he was a genius, no doubt about it… However, I am not impressed by these abilities.  They were given to Rav Chaim by the Almighty.  I am more impressed by Rav Chaim’s heroism as far as social justice is concerned… He possessed a most sensitive conscience and sensitive heart, along with unlimited courage.  I am telling you this so we can understand what the Torah demands…

“The halacha is that if two people (a man and a woman) die on the same day, G-d forbid, the woman has to be buried first and the man afterwards.  It happened in Brisk that the most outstanding friend of Rav Chaim, a great scholar and lay leader of the community, R’ Chaim Zalman Lifshitz (RCZL), died in the morning.  This man had actually been responsible for the election of Rav Chaim as the rabbi of Brisk.  Otherwise Rav Chaim would never have been elected.  At the same time, a poor woman in the Brisk Ghetto died.  It was in the winter, when the day is short.  The gabbaim of the chevra kadisha calculated that it would make no difference whether the poor woman was buried at night or by daylight.  In Lithuania they also used to bury at night.  No one would come to her funeral anyway.

“RCZL has been a pillar of the community. In the morning, he would have a big send-off.  In the evening not many people would come.  They decided to bury him first and began to prepare his body for burial first.  When Rav Chaim heard the story, he sent a messenger to the chevra kadisha to stop preparing RCZL’s body for burial.  They should bury the poor woman first.  If his burial had to take place at night as a result, it could not be helped.

“The chevra kadisha ignored his orders and continued to prepare RCZL for burial.  R’ Chaim took his cane, put on his coat, and told his shammes to accompany him.  The shammes was actually present there and told me this story.  Rav Chaim told the chevra kadisha to leave RCZL and go to the ghetto in order to bury the poor woman first.

“This was R’ Chaim’s tremendous courage…  He sacrificed his own self, his own emotions.  After all, he reciprocated RCZL’s friendship with friendship.  But he could not help it; he was a prisoner of the law.

“One sometimes has to have a lot of courage in order to be a prisoner of the law and to carry the law out.  I can tell you hundreds of such stories.  These are not stories of miracle workers.  In theory, a great man with a great intellect should also have a great and sensitive heart.  He should particularly possess courage…” (The Rav, v.1, p.197-200).

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch used to say: A person must be an adam kasher and an adam yosher; kasher with G-d and yosher with fellow man.

Let us be sure we live a life of both kashrus and yoshrus, so we mold ourselves into the Torah personality that the Torah demands, and expects, of us.

For תּוֹרָה צִוָּהלָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹבthe Torah that Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the assembly of Yaakov (Devarim 33:4).  We are, each one of us, bound by Torah.  From judge to litigant, from wealthy to poor, from man to woman, the gadol baTorah and lay person alike, from leader of the nation to the simple man.  It is according to the precepts of Torah that we must live, as we journey through life as ovdei Hashem.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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