Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sweeping Out Evil

30 Av 5772 / August 17-19, 2012

In this week’s portion, with just a month until the High Holidays, we have a strong directive:  “You will sweep out evil from your midst.”

Evil can mean a number of things in this context.  I want to focus on one example given of evil in this week’s portion, and then point to another, even greater underlying evil.

In this week’s portion, as justification for wiping out enemy nations once the Israelites enter the Promised Land, and as a mechanism for pointing out how evil their enemies are, Moses says to the Israelites: “[The other nations] even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their Gods.” 

While I think we can all agree that child sacrifice is bad and surely is grounds for criticism, are the Israelites truly in a position to be the ones sitting in judgment of other nations for their inhumane child sacrifice practices, given that Abraham, our forefather, was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s request?  To many throughout history, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is viewed as a supreme statement of faith and as laudable.  Thus, who are the Israelites to sit in judgment of other nations who might perform the same offering?  To do so, frankly, is hypocritical – the underlying evil referenced above.

Hypocrisy.  We find it everywhere today.

We jump straight to judging others, without first making sure that our own internal affairs are in order (and even if they were, in most cases, I’m not sure that judgment would be ours to render).

People haughtily point to a verse in the Book of Leviticus that condemns a particular homosexual act while happily eating shellfish, condemned in the same Book.

Regularly, Jews criticize the failure of other Jews to perform certain mitzvot, while failing to fulfill certain mitzvot themselves.

We criticize the lack of charity that others give, while we ourselves give nowhere near enough.

It is taught in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishna (the original rabbinic code of Jewish law) dealing with the Ethics of our Ancestors, that you should “judge every person favorably” (Avot 1:6), and that you shouldnot judge your fellow until you have stood in his place” (Avot 2:5).

Can we take this wisdom to heart?  Can we truly give people the benefit of the doubt and cease from needlessly criticizing them?  Can we recognize that we may not always have all of the information necessary to make an informed judgment?  In reserving judgment, we ensure that we avoid the evils of hypocrisy, and beginning with ourselves, can focus on “sweeping out the evil in our midst.”

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