by Rabbi Jack Moline
Just before Passover, a colleague shared (a slightly longer version of) this story with me.
One Pesach eve, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev walked with his servant in the city. He met a peasant, a tax smuggler, and asked him: Do you have smuggled contraband?
Of course! All you want.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak continued on his way, and met a Jew whom he asked: Do you have chametz in your house?
Now? answered the Jew in shock. It is the eve of Pesach!
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak looked to Heaven and proclaimed:
Master of the Universe! How your people cling to your commandments and obey them! The Czar posts police and tax collectors in every corner and on the borders of his huge kingdom. Nevertheless much merchandise is smuggled into the country. But You wrote in Your Torah, “No chametz may be found … in all your territory,” and though you place no police or soldier to guard us, on the eve of Pesach no chametz is found in any Jewish home!
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was renowned for finding the spark of goodness and devotion in the individual Jew, a model for generosity of spirit. Yet this story contains within it the seed of a destructive notion that was not Levi Yitzchak’s intention, but sometimes plays out that way, especially among people who place ritual integrity – let’s even expand that and say particular Jewish affirmation – above a morally admirable standard of life.
Who is the first guy in the story? He is a black marketeer, a tax thief. He encourages people to circumvent the law, not for the sake of civil disobedience, rather for the sake of his livelihood, with the knowledge that they dare not reveal the source of their good fortune lest they be accused of aiding and abetting.
The Jew, by contrast, is diligent and stringent about observing the laws of Pesach in spite of the fact that no one is looking for violators with a piece of bread. But the rabbi never asks the Jew if he has purchased contraband or avoided his taxes.
As an illustration of the compassionate and generous spirit of Levi Yitzchak, the contrast is essential. But as a lesson about Jewish values, it ought to horrify us.
We were freed from Egypt to travel to Sinai and enter into a covenant with God. At a minimum, that covenant included 10 commandments; nine of them have nothing to do with ritual observance. They are about character, moral behavior, integrity and respecting the dignity and property of others. At a maximum, the 613 commandments in the Torah demand of us both action and restraint in realms that range from what we put into our mouths to what comes out of our mouths; from giving consumers the full worth of their purchases to giving the poor the full complement of their needs.
Believing that moral conduct is less Jewish than ritual conduct is, plain and simple, a denigration of Torah. And suggesting the subversion of legitimate secular authority while expanding the corpus of ritual law in order to build a fence around the Torah is a denigration of God.
Here’s an example of just such excess. A very well-respected scholar – I won’t name him because I won’t add to his shame – gave a lesson on allegations of physical and sexual abuse in the Jewish community. He condemned abuse in no uncertain terms. But he urged caution about reporting such abuse to the authorities. And why? Because the perpetrator might go to jail. But while in some jails a Jew can get kosher food and study Talmud every day, in others the warden could put you in a cell “with a schvartze or a Muslim, a Black Muslim who wants to kill you.” Those are his words, not mine.
We should all aspire to be like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in our acceptance of Jews who might sin in one realm but hold on dearly to Jewish life in another. Such an open heart is an important quality for a rabbi, a teacher, a leader of Jews.
But in celebrating the devotion of someone because he observes a strictly kosher Pesach without asking if he sets a standard for moral behavior as well – R. Levi Yitzchak missed a teachable moment that resonated right to today.
Every Jew should do mitzvot, as many as possible. But do not think that you can rest easy with Levi Yitzchak’s blessing if you make some ritual your specialty, yet neglect your responsibility to be a good person and a good citizen, respecting the dignity of others and eradicating the prejudice in your heart that makes some people lesser than others on the basis of race, religion, economic standing or politics.
This story may not be twisted by inspiring learned men to be casual bigots, by allowing morally compromised behavior to be excused by ritual stringency or even by elevating the love we should show for every Jew above the responsibility we have to prevent bad behavior toward any human being.
Selective piety is not the exclusive practice of one kind of Jew, and a strong social conscience does not excuse ritual neglect. Our goal is to be whole, and our wisest teachers are the ones who model it.
Rabbi Jack Moline is the spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation of Alexandria.