Generosity as the Good

You know the phrase, “The perfect is the enemy of the good”? It comes to mind when reading through the beginning passages in this week’s Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23). The Torah in Leviticus, a priestly manual, is concerned with the purity required both when offering sacrifices and partaking of the sacrificial meals. The exactitude was necessitated by the Biblical mindset and its reflection of an ancient understanding of an exacting God. Aaron and his sons must be “scrupulous”; donations are “sacred”; any error would lead to a “profanation” of God’s name. So severe is the approach that any trace of the “unclean” on one partaking of the sacrificial meal would lead to the harsh judgment of being “cut off from before” God.

This is one manifestation of the Biblical God. God is Almighty. God is El Shaddai. God is El Elyon, Most High. God saves Noah’s family and a pair of each animal but destroys all the rest of life with the Flood. God burns Sodom and Gomorrah to the ground. And of course, God causes plagues and brings down Pharoah in order to free the Children of Israel from human bondage in Egypt.

While the drama, the power, the epic nature of these narratives enthralls children and makes for riveting entertainment in Technicolor, is this the God we know to be true? In the later books of the Hebrew Bible, a different image of God begins to emerge.

The story of the prophet Elijah is the clearest example, perhaps. After a violent encounter with the prophets of Baal, a Canaanite god, Elijah flees to the wilderness as far as Sinai, and finds himself, like Moses before, at Mount Horeb for forty days and forty nights.

וַיָּבֹא־שָׁ֥ם אֶל־הַמְּעָרָ֖ה וַיָּ֣לֶן שָׁ֑ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ מַה־לְּךָ֥ פֹ֖ה אֵלִיָּֽהוּ׃

There he went into a cave, and there he spent the night. Then the word of the LORD came to him. He said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי לַיהוָ֣ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י צְבָא֗וֹת כִּֽי־עָזְב֤וּ בְרִֽיתְךָ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתֶ֣יךָ הָרָ֔סוּ וְאֶת־נְבִיאֶ֖יךָ הָרְג֣וּ בֶחָ֑רֶב וָֽאִוָּתֵ֤ר אֲנִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י וַיְבַקְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לְקַחְתָּֽהּ׃

He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.”

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר צֵ֣א וְעָמַדְתָּ֣ בָהָר֮ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהִנֵּ֧ה יְהוָ֣ה עֹבֵ֗ר וְר֣וּחַ גְּדוֹלָ֡ה וְחָזָ֞ק מְפָרֵק֩ הָרִ֨ים וּמְשַׁבֵּ֤ר סְלָעִים֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א בָר֖וּחַ יְהוָ֑ה וְאַחַ֤ר הָר֨וּחַ רַ֔עַשׁ לֹ֥א בָרַ֖עַשׁ יְהוָֽה׃

“Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake.

וְאַחַ֤ר הָרַ֙עַשׁ֙ אֵ֔שׁ לֹ֥א בָאֵ֖שׁ יְהוָ֑ה וְאַחַ֣ר הָאֵ֔שׁ ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה׃

After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.

A “soft murmuring sound,” or, as it is often translated, a “still small voice.” Not the thunder or the wind; not the earthquake or the fire; but a still, small voice. Not revenge, not destruction, not a raging, punishing God but a God of word, even a whisper, of truth, goodness, kindness, justice and love.

These two images are present in Judaism because our Biblical tradition bequeaths to us a sacred text, God’s word, as Truth. And yet it is the sages and rabbis of the early common era under Greco-Roman rule who mediate the text with interpretation, aware of their own place in the chain of tradition, already 1300 years removed from Moses’ time. The centrality of the text remains; our understanding evolves.

One hint of this in our parshah itself can be found in the way that after the demanding perfection and purity of God, a kind of otherworldly sacrality and holiness, the narrative shifts to a delineation of the seasons. Time, ever-changing as the cycles of the sun and moon, is also a manifestation of structure and organization. It is “both-and,” malleable and static, changing and permanent. Seasons change, we say, and we structure our lives and adapt to the external world accordingly. But the changing seasons and structures of time found in Torah also root us in permanence and eternity. In the spring we recall our Exodus from Egypt; in early summer we receive Torah on Shavuot; in the fall, with the harvest, we recall the fragility of life; we repose in preparation for the darkness at the onset of winter. And as winter turns to spring, the cycle begins all over again.

So why this business of the perfect being the enemy of the good? Because very quietly, one might even say in a “still small voice,” the parsha says:

וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶ֞ם אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֗ם לֹֽא־תְכַלֶּ֞ה פְּאַ֤ת שָֽׂדְךָ֙ בְּקֻצְרֶ֔ךָ וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִירְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ס)

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

Time, the seasons, and our loyalty to God, are fundamentally expressed here as the commandment to feed the poor and the stranger; to dedicate portions of the land we harvest, unconditionally, to those who are most in need.

We may strive for holiness; we may yearn for the sacred; we may want to bathe in the grace of the Divine; but let us not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have to remember to structure our concept of time around giving to and protecting those most in need.

I saw a marvelous example of this on Thursday during a bike ride into the city. Between entering Manhattan on the Manhattan Bridge and leaving again via the Williamsburg Bridge on Delancey Street, I passed through the Lower East Side where I encountered New York State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou handing out 750 kosher meals provided by Re-Think, to mostly Orthodox Jews living around East Grand Street. For two months now, the Assemblymember, along with countless others in the city, are rallying to the side of those most in need, the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers of every faith and every background. I also met Patrick Mock, a 26 year old son of Chinese immigrants whose bakery, 46 Mott, is making 120 free meals a day for the hungry in his neighborhood. And here they were, helping their Jewish neighbors, showing love and compassion and generosity from the “corners of their fields,” giving as obligation, which the time of crisis demands of us. Face masks in place; gloves on hands; social distancing observed with perfection, but not enough perfection to be the enemy of the good.

It was a New York moment to be sure but it was also a Jewish moment, a human moment, a snapshot in time of what good and compassion and kindness look like. As I wheeled away, an elderly woman showed up to get the last of the meals but before she packed it away, she asked, “Is the chicken boiled or baked?” A brief moment of levity, a wish of “good Shabbos” exchanged between a Jew and a Chinese American public servant, and a sense that despite these perilous times, we will see our way forward.

For Shabbat tonight and Havdalah tomorrow, please join the JCP community at 6 pm here on Zoom. See familiar faces and feel the warmth of being together even when apart.