Pursuit Of Happiness

As identified Jews, our speech and actions reflect on our families and the larger Jewish people.

Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

American culture glories in individuality and autonomy. The foundation documents of the United States affirm the right of each individual to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Pilgrims fled England and Europe, so we are told, to practice religious liberty and to find individual freedom as well.

Justly proud of our national ideals of personal liberty and freedom, we cherish the ability to pursue happiness each in our own way. Even those Americans who came later came in search of economic freedom and personal expression. The ability to move wherever one chose, to work in any field one could, to rise as one’s talent could propel a career, speaks still to the core of our ideals as Americans.

While there is certainly merit to that perspective, it reflects a different priority than that of traditional Judaism. Where American law speaks primarily of individual rights, Jewish law emphasizes duties to others. America understands “freedom” as an absence of restraints; Judaism perceives “freedom” as the ability to be fully caring, involved and responsive.

Human Connections

The syntax of the Torah reflects that interdependent notion of human connection. In describing the anonymous man who blasphemes against God, the Torah informs us that “his mother’s name was Sh’lomit, the daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.” Why do we need such a lengthy presentation of this anonymous punk’s family and kin? Alone, he provoked a fight, and he cursed God alone, so why involve his innocent mother, grandfather and tribe?

The Rabbis of antiquity assumed that the Torah would not waste words on unnecessary information. If the name of the mother and the tribe are there, the Torah must have meant to teach us something. But what would that be? In this unexpected list, the commentator Rashi recognizes a message about human responsibility and belonging: “that the wicked bring shame on themselves, their parents and on their tribe.”

Similarly, the righteous earn “praise for themselves, praise for their parents and for their tribe.” In other words, our deeds implicate those who love us and those who are connected to us through family or through peoplehood. We may think we act alone, but we touch more lives than we know, and our deeds have the power to taint or adorn the lives of those who love us. Each of us affects the reputation of all.

In the words of the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, “Why is Israel compared to a sheep? Just as if you strike a sheep on its head, or on one of its limbs, all its limbs feel it, so if one Jew sins, all Jews feel it.”

All Jews have a stake in each other. Our deeds, our behavior and our character alter the way other people perceive us as a group. Indeed, the behavior of one Jew can even influence how other Jews perceive Judaism!

Shaming the Tradition

When Jews engage in fraud, we shame the values cultivated by our tradition. When Jews express contempt against other Jews — either through word or deed — we betray our common ancestry and endanger our shared future. When Jews ignore the suffering of other people — in our own community and around the world  — we implicate the Source of our humanity.

Identifying as Jews, we agree implicitly to preserve the Jewish people as a “light to the nations.” How we act will affect how non-Jews think of us all. How we act will mold how we think of ourselves as well.

Jewish self-hatred is often absorbed from the attitudes or behavior of our fellow Jews. And one courageous, pious or decent Jew can inspire a score of us to emulate those same precious ideals. The kippah (yarmulke, or skullcap) on your head, the mezuzah (parchment) near your door, or the chain around your neck is a pledge to reflect the highest standards of Jewish morality. The Jewish people depends on you. Through our brit (covenant) with God, our history and our heritage, we are one.

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.


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