Rabbi Michael Friedland
A recent USA Today insert for in the South Bend Tribune acknowledged the 50th anniversary of what the paper called “three extraordinary acts of courage” – the opposition of Martin Luther King, Jr, Muhammad Ali and Eugene McCarthy to the Vietnam war. These were acts of courage because they each put their prestige in jeopardy for criticizing a war which many Americans supported. They were criticized and lost standing but they have all been vindicated by history.
In the USA Today article, Martin Luther King called for a permanent end to bombing and immediate ceasefire, not only to to protect the Vietnamese people but “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, ‘Vietnam.’
What struck me in this quote was the focus on the American collective soul being at risk due to an unjust war. I think there is no doubt that his concern was proven correct. The Vietnam War was the next greatest military effort after World War II, much more extensive and damaging than the Korean War. Unlike World War II, America was not seen as fighting the great fight against tyranny but rather fighting to support a tyranny. Doubt and a lack of trust in government reached deep into the collective psyche and I think the vestiges of that mistrust continue to this day on both the left and the right.
King’s lesson compares to a teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel that “Some are guilty, but all are responsible”. In a collective, not everyone may be guilty of wrongdoing, but ultimately it affects everyone unless means are made to stop it. Thus all are responsible to make amends in some way for the sins of the few.
In the opening of Leviticus there is a valuable lesson about the dangers to the community by the sins of a few. We are introduced to the ritual and cultic practices in the Tabernacle, mishkan. The opening chapters describe different sacrificial offerings made by the priests and by individuals. One of the offerings is called a Chattat. In older translations, the chattat sacrifice is translated ‘sin offering’, because a chet is a sin and the offering was made in response to an inadvertent sin. But our Chumash follows the studies of Jacob Milgrom who insisted that the chattat should be translated ‘purification offering’ because the offering by the sinner brought purification. Milgrom clarified that chattat was a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society; these sins “attacked” the sanctuary, where they accumulated. The chattat purified the sanctuary. Milgrom refers to the blood of the offering which was sprinkled on the curtains of the Ark, the altar of incense in inner court, and the sacrificial altar in the outer court in different situations as a ritual detergent. The inadvertent offender did not need for himself to be purged by the chattat blood because his sin was washed away by his acknowledgement that he made a mistake and his remorse. What he needed to do was receive forgiveness for the consequence of his actions. His offense caused the sanctuary itself to become polluted.
The theology behind such a system argued Milgrom was that the God of Israel will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. The merciful God will tolerate a modicum of pollution but there is a point of no return. “More grievous than all the other transgressions in the Torah is the imparting pollution to the sanctuary and its sancta, taught Rabbi Shimon. When that point is reached the community is in great danger.
Milgrom shares a number of examples from comparable ancient texts that Israel was in full accord with its neighbors’ obsessive compulsion to purify its shrines. The key difference between Israel and pagan nations was that the pagan world was suffused with fear that impurity was caused by and would lead to demonic possession of its sancta; Israel had removed demonic power from its concern with impurity. “Malefic impurity does not inhere in nature; it is the creation of man. Only man, even by inadvertence, can generate the impurity that will evict God from his earthly abode”.
Milgrom’s description of ancient Israel’s cultic theology resonates with a Jewish theology that would develop 1500 years after the destruction of the Temple.
Among the medieval kabbalists there developed a theology that human sin not only was detrimental to the sinner and not only caused punishment due to the breaking of covenantal bonds, but impacted on God and on the cosmic realms. Sins impact negatively on the Godhead and gum up the sefirotic structure, the process by which the Divine enters into this world. What effect does sin have on God?
Elijah deVidas in his Kabbalistic Mussar work Reshit Hochmah uses a metaphor about a spring of water that flows down and irrigates beautiful fields and orchards. If someone comes along and diverts the pipes such that the water flows instead into a garbage heap, the landowner will become angry that the valuable water is being used for this purpose, and that the fields are being neglected while the resources are flowing into the trash-heap.
Teshuvah is the reparation of those broken irrigation pipes and restoring them to their original position so that the Divine flow can return.
Among the Kabbalists in an even more profound way than the Priestly authors in the Torah, each of us by our actions impacts on the community as a whole, each action we take has cosmic ramifications.
We know this to be true in our world today. When we act in ways that treat our environment poorly –from small acts like littering, or idling our cars when we are waiting somewhere instead of turning the car off, to more serious acts of environmental harm by unsafe corporate practices, the entire community is affected, and even the entire universal eco system. Accepted scientific evidence shows us that global climate changes over the last century have been caused by human actions. Our unwillingness to, as it were, purge our sins of wanton destruction of the environment and exploitation of natural resources are polluting our sacred space – the earth.
We live in a closed universe. Our actions have consequences, not only on ourselves but on our community and on the Divine. Sinful behavior, exploitive behavior, hateful acts give off ripples that impact our collective psyche for generations. But just as such actions cause harm, so we have the ability to rectify such negative acts. Observing the mitzvot, demanding an end to harmful policies, defending the vulnerable, insisting that all are equal before the law, these are
some of the ways that we too like our ancestors can purge the ethical, and literal, pollution from our society.