Being Nice to Our People

May 10th: Kedoshim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of my favorite politically-incorrect jokes tells of the Lone Ranger and Tonto fighting a band of marauding Indians. They fight and fight and are finally boxed in a canyon with just a few bullets left. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and asks, “What do you think we ought to do?” Tonto turns to the Lone Ranger and replies, “What mean we, Kimosabe?”

There are all kinds of bonds of friendship and kinship, and, within these bonds, there is supposed to be affection, camaraderie, and loyalty. However, sometimes the borders of affiliation shift unexpectedly, and loyalty and the sense of connection are less than certain.

For Jews, this has been a historical nightmare. In far too many places, everything was fine until it wasn’t. Consider Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a loyal and highly-placed officer in the French military. He was a well-regarded Frenchman until charges of treason were concocted against him, and then he and every other French Jew were considered foreigners and traitors. It was similar in Atlanta around 100 years ago, when Leo Frank, “a New York Jew” (who was actually from Texas) was accused of murdering a young girl in the factory he managed. Up until then, he was a prominent citizen—as were hundreds of the German Jewish citizens of Atlanta. But, suddenly, the public mood shifted rapidly: “He isn’t one of us!”  The anti-Jewish mood in Atlanta got so bad that many families sent their women and children away for extended “vacations.”  (For an excellent and emotionally tortuous expression of this dynamic, give a listen to Alfred Uhry’s Parade, an opera based on the trial and lynching of Leo Frank.)

 Within the Jewish community, a similar dynamic is often at play. We can become very compartmentalized, favoring our kind of Jews and treating those kinds of Jews with less than respect. It is most notable among the Hassidim and Haredim in places like Brooklyn and Mea Shearim, but even we Reform and Conservative Jews can slip into the intra-Jewish xenophobia:
“They’re not like us.”

The relevance to our Torah portion comes with the question of how far and to whom do we extend the hand of fairness and charity. Kedoshim is the Torah portion with the Golden Rule and all sorts of other good and kind and fair mitzvot:
“When you harvest your crops or vineyards…leave some for the poor and the stranger.”
“You shall not steal or deal deceitfully with one another.”
“You shall not defraud your fellow.”
“Judge your kinsmen fairly.”
“Do not deal basely with your countrymen.”
“Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.”
“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.”
“Reprove your kinsman so that you do not incur guilt because of him.”
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen.”
“Love your fellow as yourself.”
(All from Leviticus 19.9-19)

These words, “kinsman, kinsfolk, neighbor, and fellow,” are translations of the Hebrew words, Amecha (your people), Amitecha (a member of your people), Achicha (your brother), and Re’echa (your neighbor). All indicate a closeness and sense of community or loyalty. How far, however, do we spread the borders of acceptance?

Traditionally, much of our liturgy was self-concerned: we prayed for the welfare of the Jewish people, we who were often attacked by the outsiders. There have always been universalistic passages in our prayers, but often our concern was for Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. In modern times, our consideration has expanded, and many modern liturgists have added terms that included others in more of our prayers. Two examples come from the Sabbath Amidah.

 In Siddur Hadash, the red prayer book we often use on Saturday mornings, the editor, Rabbi Sydney Greenberg, z’l, adds a word to Sim Shalom. The traditional version reads,
Sim shalom, tovah, uv’racha, chen, vachesed, verachamim alaynu v’al kol Yisrael amecha. Grant peace, goodness, and blessing, graciousness, and kindness, and mercy to us and to all Israel, Your people.” Greenberg adds the word ba’olam / in the world to the first phrase, adding to our prayer the whole world: “Grant peace, goodness and blessing to the world; graciousness, kindness, and mercy to us and to all Your people Israel.”

In Siddur B’rit Shalom, our congregational (purple) prayer book, we follow some modern liturgists in adding a universalistic element to Shalom Rav. Traditionally, the prayer asks: “Shalom rav al Yisrael amcha tasim l’olam. Grant abundant and everlasting peace upon Israel Your people.” However, based on the philosophical position voiced, among others, by the Prophet Amos in this week’s Haftarah, we have added “V’al kol ha’amim. And to all peoples.”

Some other modern liturgists have alternative universalistic phrasings. Some use “V’al kol yir’ay Sh’mecha. And upon all who revere Your name,” while others prefer “V’al kol yosh’vay tevel. And all who dwell on earth.” An amusing issue comes up when the popular tunes for the prayers were written before the additional universalistic phrases, and we have to change the tune or sing the older particularistic version.

Let me conclude with the words of the Prophet Amos, who reminds us that, as special as we are, so is everyone else! “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but I also brought the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.” (Amos 9.7)

God loves us all, and, though we may feel a special kinship with some humans, we are reminded to be menschen to everyone.