Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Leprosy is a subject no one likes to discuss. Today, it’s called Hansen’s disease, but it’s still leprosy. In Torah, it’s the stuff of a few chapters in Leviticus where the focus is on the High Priest. His role is to identify the affliction in the body of an infected person. If the affliction is of a nature that requires healing, then the High Priest orders the person to leave the community. After some days, the High Priest examines the afflicted person. If the affliction is healed, then the person reenters the community after a proper offering is made.
What is the offering? Torah teaches (Leviticus 14:4), “The priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified.” Midrash asks and answers, “Why are lepers to be purified through the tallest of trees and the lowliest of plants? They were stricken because they exalted themselves like the cedar; but when they abase themselves like the hyssop, they will be healed.” According to Midrash, the disease is hubris; gross arrogance often reflected in abuse of power, ill-spoken words, and misplaced assumptions that lead to the downfall of a community. The cedar represents self-exaltation that flies in the face of the High Priests who serve God and thus the welfare of the community-at-large. The hyssop is the counter-balance; it neutralizes the effects of personal arrogance. Together, cedar and hyssop represent a middle-ground where the individual is not too great but not too small, either.
Today, Hansen’s disease is thankfully not a threat to any modern community; but, just as the rabbis defined it in Midrash, the threat of hubris as gross arrogance reflected in abuse of power, ill-spoken words, and misplaced assumptions still runs rampant. If leaders speak from up on their high-horses, small-minded people get on their soap-boxes, and petty interests overtake larger concerns for personal gain, then individuals, organizations or whole communities can be threatened. It’s not enough to look for it only in others as the High Priest used to do. It’s potentially in all of us. Today, we must examine ourselves closely, lest it overtake us, too.
A simple test comes from Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers. In a wise teaching, the rabbis used to say, “In a place where there is no one in charge, strive to be a leader.” But, they also taught, “In a place where there is already a leader, step back and let that person lead.” It’s easier said than done. It’s a test of the human ego. Leading and following are two sides of the same coin. Leaders must learn when to step back to follow their subordinates who are tasked with specific responsibilities. If they can’t step back, then they risk micro-managing or dishonoring others who are charged with tasks to do. Hubris risks everything. Humility, represented by wisdom and maturity (and some would add a good dose of humble pie) goes a long way in achieving mutual goals and best results.
Mussar, Jewish ethics, teaches us to express gratitude. Called “hakarat ha-tov” we are permitted to take appropriate credit for what we do, but urged to recognize the role that others play in our achievements. Mussar always makes room for the role of God, as the ultimate source of our natural urges and inclinations. What we do with our natural urges and inclinations is, therefore, our response to God’s creative acts in us. We are never totally alone nor completely consumed by the other; rather, we are in constant relationship with self, others and God. To work successfully we must find balance, which not surprisingly returns us to the Torah where we first learn that our best “place” is not too high and not too low.
At the end of each week, I personally find that time to recalibrate my sense of emotional and spiritual balance requires intentional reflection. For me, it begins at Shabbat services when we welcome each other and Cantor Daniel Mutlu continues with songs for Shabbat. Perhaps it begins at Shabbat services for you, too. I know that it can. This week, may balance and harmony begin at Beth Israel and follow us home into all the places we go.