I don’t recall anyone ever offering me anything, checking in on me, or otherwise paying attention to me at an airport. As in many places, people there tend to keep to themselves, checking phones, typing on the computer, snoozing, or talking to the folks sitting to their right or left.
I was thinking about this story after studying the part of parshat Pinchas we read today, the part that lays out the sacrifices our ancient brothers and sisters brought to the Temple in Jerusalem during the 7 days of Sukkot, a total of 70 sacrifices over the course of the week long festival.
And ringing in my head at the same time are the words of the prophet Hoshea (6:6), “Chesed chafatz’ti ve’lo zavach,” “For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
Aren’t the sacrifices meant to train us to live with self-awareness and responsibility? We must take the initiative to acquire and participate in the offerings. As a people we must choose to hear and respond to God’s words, and if we love God with these gifts then we will be more likely to also love God by treating other people with the respect and dignity they deserve, and also hopefully reaching out to others as the kind gentleman reached out to me.
Time and again, though, the prophets warn us our sacrifices are in vain since they noticed disrespect and injustice around them. They say, in effect, focus on the moral principles in the Torah first, and let the ritual aspects enrich our Jewish lives through both the discipline they demand and the beauty and insight they can help us achieve.
The Torah, to be clear, does not distinguish between ritual and moral mitzvoth. There is no scale in the Torah itself that suggests love your neighbor as yourself is any greater a value than the nation’s responsibility to furnish the 70 offerings for Sukkot.
But later authorities, prophets and Rabbis, especially after the destruction of the Temple, an event we will remember on Tisha B’av in 3 weeks; they will argue that after the destruction of the Temples, which happened despite adherence to the rituals, perhaps the mitzvoth ben adam la’chavero, the ways people should relate to one another, are in fact more important, and in fact causeless hatred – disrespect, lack of empathy – that animosity between people toppled the 2nd Temple and not the military might of the 10th Roman legion.
We can synthesize these reflections by first making an assumption, an assumption I hope we can all agree upon, the assumption that God gives the Torah to the people for the better – that they, that we, will benefit. We will grow in holiness, and in taking responsibility for our behavior, for being good stewards of the world that surrounds and nourishes us, for being teachers and leaders in the tradition of our ancestors.
And we find this assumption grows not only toward ourselves, as the people of the covenant, but to others as well. Rashi brings down a Midrash on the opening words of the verses laying out the 70 offerings, “The [offerings] of the [Sukkot] holiday are 70 with respect to the 70 nations of the world…[in the days of the Holy Temple] they offer them protection from adversity.”(Rashi to 29:18)
But tragically, while studying the Torah and internalizing its teachings can give us a sense of identity and purpose, neither the Torah nor its teachings can protect us from harm, from the evils the world and its people carry out. While we participate in Jewish life, in prayer, in education, in any way we express our Judaism, and as we strive to grow as thoughtful, caring, and active in creating this world in God’s image, we operate knowing that the unknown is so much greater, and often scarier, than the known, that the shalom we seek – the peace, the wholeness, the blessing – is elusive.
Our tradition points out and emphasizes just how elusive this peace can be in the opening verses of this week’s parsha when God promises Pinchas, the title character, a brit shalom, a covenant of peace – the ‘vav’ in that word Shalom is cut in two, there is a break in the vav showing to us how zealotry in acting for God can in fact lead to suffering rather than salvation.
We’ve seen this too often this summer, and most recently in the violent way terrorists entered the church in St. Etienne de Rouvray, in northern France, and murdered Father Jacques Hamel and left other parishioners critically injured. The perverted zealousness of the Islamic State terrorists appears to have no boundaries and although Muslim communities in France and elsewhere denounce these attacks, they sadly continue as do protests against the State of Israel a place where its Arab citizens fare well in comparison to other countries in the region. And we must demand during this election season that both sides of the political spectrum here must make the campaign about real plans for thoughtful leadership.
In this three weeks period, let’s follow the example of the generous gentleman who made the offer of a glass of water. In place of causeless hate, let us offer ahavat chinam, loving-kindness without expectation of reward or return. While we must stand strong and take the fight to our enemies, we ourselves are not the soldiers to do this and violence in speech and action tends to only breed more of the same. As MLK taught us, we will meet brute force with soul force. And like the protestors of the 1960s, we will prepare and be thoughtful in our approach – like our ancient brothers and sisters we will make the sacrifice of our time and energy to reach out, to branch out, and extend our message to the community before Tisha B’av and long before we gather to usher in a New Year.
Let’s take a moment to think now, to whom will we offer the glass of water this week?