Rabbi Joel Zaiman served our community with great care and love for over 30 years. He has left an indelible mark on us all. Your willingness over these past months to share your personal stories of how it was that Rabbi Zaiman connected with you, not only with his beloved family, but with me as well has touched me, has touched our community and has shown us that Rabbi Zaiman will be with us for a long time to come. I would like to share one with you. Last July, just a few days into my tenure as senior rabbi, I received a voice mail from Rabbi Zaiman, that said he would love to find some time to sit with. Not sure what I was supposed to do, I asked Rabbi Wechsler, and she informed that I had been summoned and that I should get over there ASAP!
As we sat down for what would be the first of several conversations, the first thing Rabbi Zaiman said to me, “So kid what’s your vision for the shul?.” It was at the same time both endearing and warm, and utterly frightening and intimidating. After overcoming my speechlessness, which by now is unimaginable to many of you, we began to talk about Chizzie as he called it, and the Jewish world in general. I feel grateful for the time we had together even though it turned out be so short. Each interaction I felt so blessed to be in his warm and nurturing, yet instructive presence.
Of all of our interactions, the one that resonates to this day more than any other, was our discussion on Halachah-Jewish Law. Rabbi Zaiman was fascinated by my observation that during rabbinical school, it was the students who did not grow up in observant homes, who became the strictest followers of Jewish law. Whereas those of us who had grown up in observant homes, were far more likely to apply a more lenient ruling than a stringent one. It was Rabbi Zaiman’s response to this thought that struck me. He said, “It makes sense. In order to truly appreciate the spirit of the law, in a manner which allows you to interpret it loosely, you have to repeatedly experience its application to understand its essence.” Rabbi Zaiman was suggesting that the best way to understand the heart of the law is to live within the law. Only then can we appreciate that by not merely accepting a superficial understanding, we treat the law as a living entity open to a deep an intimate interpretation, that we honor the original understanding by turning it on its head. For too long, Jewish communities have lived outside the law. We have treated the law as an impenetrable canon, prioritizing its application above its understanding.
There is a Jewish idea that captures this sentiment. In Hebrew its, “lifnim m’shurat hadin.” Literally this means inside the line of the law. But the idea is that there are times when the best way to interpret Jewish law, is not to be solely inspired by the letter of the law, but to allow the spirit of the law to have a voice, and potentially an overriding one. That moments of religious tension and uncertainty call for us to probe our hearts and our minds to come to an understanding of the law, that is not only congruent with Torah and Jewish literature, but with our souls and the way of the world as well.
The 13th-century commentator Nachmanides writing about Deuteronomy 6:18, says, “You shall do what is right and good in the eyes of God teaches that the laws of the Torah cannot legislate for more than a fraction of the ethical dilemmas we will face in life. However, through understanding the Torah we can fine-tune our moral sensibilities so that we will be able to intuit what’s the right thing to do in cases that are not legislated and to do more than the Torah requires in situations that are. The Talmud even considers the paradoxical possibility that going beyond the letter of halachah is itself what the halachah requires of us.
The Torah teaches that if our brother’s animal goes astray or falls, we are to care for it or help lift it. And most challengingly, we are to do the same for our enemy’s animal. The Torah understands how every one of our actions impacts the larger culture. However, according to the Talmud there are certain exceptions. Not everyone has to retrieve or help lift. For example, if a person is elderly or a learned person of high regard, they can ignore the situation. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Ishmael’s son Rabbi Yose was walking when he came upon a man who was holding a load of wood. The man placed the load down and after a minute asked for help in lifting the wood. Rabbi Ishmael helps him.
The Talmud goes on to explain that Rabbi Ishamel was under no obligation to provide any assistance because he was a learned elder. It turns out that by law Rabbi Ishmael could have walked right by. Instead he figured out a way to help out. This is what is meant by lifnim m’shurat hadin – stopping short of insisting on everything the law entitles us to. The Talmud teaches that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of those who insisted on having every single right and privilege they were entitled to under the law.
Dr. Christine Hayes, a professor of Jewish studies at Yale gives an example of this you will no doubt recognize. She tells the story that she was late for a connecting flight and needed a boarding pass. She ran to the gate where someone was in line discussing a future flight three hours from then. Dr. Hayes politely asked this person if she could get her boarding pass for the flight leaving in 5 minutes. The person in front of her said “I was here first.” As Dr. Hayes told us when she recounted the story “and she was right. By rights it was her place in line.”
It is also the right of every American to shout anti-Semitic epithets from the mountain tops. We live in a country that demands we advocate for the free speech of those whose words are anathema to us as well to those with whom we agree. But I want you to imagine an America where just because people have the right to spew hatred, that they desist from it because there is a fundamental understanding and agreement amongst our society that we should not. Perhaps in this world, hate filled mongers like the one who murdered our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh, will find fewer places where their hatred is accepted, and fewer people who make it normative. We have the right to say just about anything we want in this country. But should we exercise it all the time, and how can we expect others to be menschen and show this kind of important discretion if we ourselves wont do the same.
It is easy for us to avail ourselves of our so-called rights. Too often in our world, in our country, in our Jewish community, we find ways to rationalize our inexcusable behavior based on some perceived right or sense of entitlement. When we know in our heart of hearts, from the very moral center of our beings, that place we are tasked with accessing over these days of awe, that we should not be acting in this fashion even if we can find a legal justification to do so.
We sit here in synagogue during this time of year and we voluntarily stand in judgement. We don’t have to be here, yet so many make the choice to be. We want to do better. We look back at the last year, and wonder what we could have done differently, what we might change to improve ourselves in the coming year. It is not an easy exercise, but it is one that only works when we are willing to ask ourselves difficult questions, when we are willing to look within honestly, and not fall back on the scapegoat of a legal yet artificial justification. This kind of meaningful personal reflection requires us to think deeply about the idea that possessing the legal high ground, the right to do something, is often best affirmed in the decision not to act upon it.
Friends, the great news is that words and actions matter. Each time any one of us makes the decision to act in a manner that is lifnim mishurat hadin, people take notice. As a society, and especially as a Jewish community we take great note when someone’s humanity, when their empathy shines through in a moment when it need not. One of the central ideas of these days of awe is that we seek the compassionate side of the divine, and one another, so that even if we did transgress in the past year, that we will be treated with a compassion that we might not always deserve. Perhaps what we are asking for is the notion that if we behave towards others lifnim mishurat hadin, with generosity and kindness beyond what is strictly required, then we might hope that God and they as well will act lifnim mishurat hadin with us. That they will look deep within themselves and our tradition and know that compassion and forgiveness is right even when not required.
So the next time you are in line at the airport and someone desperately needs to go in front of you, or the next time you experience any situation where you are within your right to act one way, remember that while the choice is essentially yours. You know. We know in our hearts and our minds, that in that moment our tradition demands of us that we be able to look lifnim mishurat hadin. That we go into the heart of our tradition and allow the spirit of our great history to inspire us to act in this world in the way should. Only then can any one of us transform the world. Only then can we as a community fulfill our destiny to be a light unto the nations.