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Seeing Beyond False Choices

05/09/2017 05:23:52 PM

May9

May 9, 2017
by Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller

I had three grandfathers. My father’s father Jules Saxe died before I was born and, along with my brother and two cousins, I am named after him. He was known among other things for his integrity, and I have always stood prouder thinking of him. My mother’s father, Paul Stuehler, fled Nazi Germany along with my grandmother, Greta, to make a new life here in San Francisco. His yartzheit is this week, and while I only knew him for the first few years of my life, I know my Grandpa Paul through my mother as a man whose kindness and sense of humor survived despite all of his losses. My father’s mom, Marian, married the grandpa I grew up with when I was a toddler. Steve Miller was warm, loud and argumentative. He was looking for an argument like some people look for love. His sense of humor was expressed in big gestures, like pouring a glass of milk while moving the carton up and down over the glass. When he was asked whether he wanted chocolate or coffee ice cream, he would invariably answer: Yes. And this is the connection between my Grandpa Steve and this week’s Torah reading, Emor.

This week’s reading is a manual of laws to be observed by the priests as they represented the people in relationship with God. Since we no longer have a functioning priesthood, many of the laws no longer apply. But some of these laws convey values that we continue to express in other ways. Leviticus 22:27-28 instructs: “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a gift to the Eternal. However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.” Maimonides taught that the purpose of this set of commandments is to respect the “emotional faculty, which is common to humans and animals alike.” Contrary to this, the medieval scholar B’khor Shor argues, “It is not because God pities the animal but in order that the people of Israel should not practice cruel habits.”

Well, which is it? Must we treat animals with care because they are creatures with feelings like our own, or is this commandment solely for our own refinement? In the spirit of my Grandpa Steve, I think the answer must be YES. When we fulfill a moral obligation, it is for the sake of the values we are upholding, and for our own growth as people of integrity. How can these be separated, and why would we want to separate them?

Similarly, in my time as rabbi of Sherith Israel, I have often asked myself whether a given project or activity was for the sake of our community or to serve a Jewish value in the larger world. If I were counseling an individual, or leading a class or service, it seemed to be for the sake of the community; and if I were attending a meeting of San Franciscans on a public issue, it was for the sake of the value of that issue. But of course, these lines are actually false, since strengthening our community also strengthens our city, and vice versa, to put it most simply. There are times to focus on one place or the other, but there is reason to believe that we affect the whole in everything we do.

Saturday, May 27 2017 2 Sivan 5777