Friday, January 23, 2015

Siyyum Masechet Yoma: Saving A Life Trumps All

We are taught in our Torah that the purpose of Mitzvot is to enable our meaningful living process and that we are to live by them, not die by them. This is a foundational value and teaching that provides the underpinning for so much of Halacha. Our most important teachers of Jewish Law constantly remind us of this in their writings while holding onto the importance and the centrality of Mitzvot as a set of dictates for how we live.

Today, I have just completed learning MasechetYoma, the tractate about Yom Kippur. Most of the tractate, seven of its eight chapters, is about the pageantry of the Yom Kippur sacrifices and the role of the Kohanim as we recall during our recitation of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. While sacrifices and the preparedness of those who offer them is the central subject of so much of this Tractate, it is important for us to consider Chapter Eight which references practices with which we are more familiar and associate with this day in our annual cycle of Jewish living – fasting, refraining from bathing and anointing ourselves, and other practices that are part of our daily lives.

As we complete learning this important text, the last four topics are most interesting, and I believe, the most pivotal. First of all, we again amplify the point that saving a life is tantamount to all other things. It is in the context of this discussion that we learn about the laws requiring us to feed those who need food and are physically unable to fast. We are taught that if there is even a doubt that someone’s life is at stake, we err on the side of caution, remembering this is not meant as a test of deprivation per se, for its own sake. For only in this way are we observing the basic principle that we are to live by the Mitzvot, not die because of them. We break down doors to save babies who are locked in rooms, we pull apart the rubble of a building that has collapsed to save lives, and we are strongly reminded of the importance of life above all else. Not only that, but we are adjured to rush to do these things and not question them. We are taught that the person who runs to save a life, even while “breaking” other prohibitions, is to be greatly praised. And yes, this COUNTS for Yom Kippur as well!

After this discussion, we learn about Teshuva, true and honest and intentional repentance in which we are dedicated to being better and more refined human beings. This is a soul-searching and dedicated process that is not to be taken glibly and it must be sincere. This is for ALL of us, including our leaders and those that would have us believe that they have some type of authority.

As this text and discussion continues, we are shown stories of acts of humility by the greatest of those leaders at that time, including the great lengths they would go to ask for forgiveness if they had wronged another. I kept thinking about the unique characteristic of Jewish leadership as taught in our sources that they are to lead by following the authority of G-d, not by doing as they please because of their position. It was for this precise reason that we are taught in Deuteronomy in one of Moshe’s last speeches that our leaders are to keep a Sefer Torah (book of our law) by them at all times. This was to remind them that they are stewards who act on behalf of G-d, nothing more. If this sense of accountability is not maintained, then these are not leaders! What a standard to truly think about and apply.

These stories of humility are to teach us that we all stand before G-d, that our leaders are to exemplify this standing before G-d, and that we are all to work together to protect life and preserve the dignity of each other. This is what Yom Kippur is about and this is what we are to carry with us every day of our lives as we consider how we are to purify ourselves before G-d: Remember the importance of life – yours and that of those around you; lead with compassion and empathy; always be ready to acknowledge your weaknesses as a human being; and intentionally act at all times with humility.

As we look around us at the leaders of our world and the many abuses in which they engage and the lack of consideration for others that is too often thrown in our faces, we must remember that these lessons are at the heart of our lives as those who believe in a Greater Power to Whom we are accountable. This is, I think, the BEST of religion!

We say a special prayer when we complete such a learning unit. This is mine -- to truly live and exhibit these foundational teachings in our lives!

Shabbat Shalom!

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