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The Holiness Code: Torah Reflections from Central Members (2019)

October 16, 2019 | Worship and High Holidays

On Yom Kippur afternoon we read a section of the Torah known as the holiness code. This section, found in chapter 19 of Leviticus, is at the heart of the Torah and contains some of the most moving commandments within our tradition. We asked a few of our members to reflect upon one of these commandments. They did so in front of our community just after we chanted from the Torah. We are grateful for their personal and moving insights which are shared below:

Adam Josephs
Leviticus 19:9

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap the corners of your field, and do not glean the fallen ears of your crop. Nor may you strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the overlooked grapes; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal am your God.”

“How many pro bono hours have you completed in the last two years?”

Every time a lawyer has to re-register with the New York Bar, the application has this question—the only one that you are required to answer anonymously. In a profession full of requirements—spending X number of hours in Y different categories of “continuing legal education”—there is surprisingly no requirement for any pro bono or charitable work at all. The only obligation is to answer this one question, anonymously but honestly, of how many hours you’ve done.

In my four years as a practicing lawyer, I had to re-register with the Bar twice—and answer this question twice. And my answer, both times: “zero hours.”  It’s not something I’m proud of, but I wasn’t alone—in fact, I’d never heard of anyone in the Mergers & Acquisitions group at my firm doing any pro bono work at all. Our reasoning was typical of busy professionals: “I’m already overcommitted with work responsibilities. I support charitable causes in my community outside of the office. That will have to be enough.”

But Leviticus teaches us that it’s not enough. Service to the community can—and must—be part of the day-to-day of our careers, rather than relegated to an outside activity. Like the farmer, we can all find those “corners” of our field to leave unharvested—no matter the profession. Since I left the law to go into the clothing business, I’ve found it come more naturally—today, that is having my company help hospitals buy clothing for their homeless patients, and working with schools to outfit their youth programs.

As we look inward these High Holy Days, we should be asking ourselves that same anonymous Bar application question given to lawyers, and searching for our own “corners”—seeking out the ways we can integrate service into our work lives in the coming year.

Sharon Djaha
Leviticus 19:9

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap the corners of your field, and do not glean the fallen ears of your crop. Nor may you strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the overlooked grapes; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal am your God.”

From the Talmud–

“Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.”

We all want to do good in this world. We want to say please and thank you, God Bless you to the stranger who sneezes, hold a door for someone who is struggling with a stroller or using a cane. Basic niceties.

We live in a big, crowded, anonymous city with millions of people who could use small acts of kindness from their neighbors. Being Jewish and following this portion of Leviticus commands us to do that and more.

Living a Jewish life requires each one of us to go out of our way, to help someone in need, to give something of ourselves, to share the fruits of our bounty. “Do not reap to the corners of your fields”; it is our commandment to give our attention, our time, our money, our good fortune, to those less fortunate.

Give a leftover meal from the restaurant to the man you pass everyday who lives on the street, who may not have eaten in a few days.Volunteer at a soup kitchen to broaden that reach. Give a blanket to the woman who is shivering in the cold under the bridge or buy a bunch of bananas every day, whether you need them or not, because the old man selling them is on the street for 20 hours a day.

Save someone, just one person, in some small way. Because we have ENOUGH. Enough food. Enough material goods. Enough.

My son has a practice of giving money to homeless people on the street before a big event in his life. A job interview, a big exam, or when he is in need of doing something good. It’s his way of paying it forward, giving in hopes of getting, recognizing his life is blessed and he wants to share the wealth in some small way. This act of charity is his holy place.

Perhaps this is true for all of us; to give of ourselves, our time, our resources is what it means to be holy. Following the commandment, we all need to ask ourselves if we are leaving a corner of our field for the stranger, doing something for those who are less fortunate, helping on a regular basis, doing our part to save the world.

Miriam Herman-Flink
Leviticus 19:34

“The stranger who lives with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I grew up in a Jewish home in the 5 towns on Long Island. Highlights from my childhood included shopping on Central Avenue Wednesday nights, weekends at my grandparents in Long Beach, summers at camp and every holiday together with family and friends.

The generation before me however did not have it so easy. My family is from Budapest. Until the early 1940’s life was amazing for them. My Grandpa George was the jeweler to the rich and famous of Europe and my Grandma Bubi was daughter of a very successful business man.

When the war came to Budapest they had to give up everything. My grandfather was sent to a labor camp, my grandmother left with a new child and one on the way.

Thankfully my family was able to survive.  How did they do it??? They owe their lives to the kindness of strangers. Those strangers supplied papers and safe rooms. And eventually safe passage to America.

In my mid 30s I was fortunate enough to have traveled back to Budapest with my grandmother and aunt. They showed me all around the city, including the homes they lived and where my grandma used to go on dates. When we were there, we attended a cousin’s wedding. During the reception all of a sudden everyone stopped and began to cry. I had no clue what was happening. I said did someone die? When my grandmother was able to compose herself, she explained a very special guest had just entered the room. She introduced me to him as Bella¹s son. At first I thought who’s Bella?  And then I realized Bella was the lead soldier that had kept them safe. Bella was the soldier that warned them about the raids, moved them to the countryside when it became too dangerous, the one that secured them papers. He was a stranger and yet he saved my Jewish family and many more like them. We hugged, we cried and we hugged some more. He went from stranger to family in seconds.

Today I teach my 8-year-old daughter Noa that we people are all the same. We have the same blood, the same insides. We may look different on the outside but we are the same on the inside. It doesn’t matter where we are from, or what religion we believe. We welcome everyone. Everyone should be free and everyoneshould be given the freedom to live.

Robert Mitchell
Leviticus 19:14

“Do not curse the deaf.”

My interpretation of “the deaf” includes anyone who may not be around to hear, and may never hear, what is being said. I am not far removed from high school and college life where the prevalence of gossip and talking behind peoples’ backs was immense. This Yom Kippur I am particularly thinking about one activity I participated in during my college years. I was a member of a fraternity at school, which I genuinely believe was made up of great, thoughtful kids. We took the idea of being a fraternity seriously and always looked out for each other. Still, I and some of my fellow members participated in our share of “insulting the deaf.”

At the end of Rush we would come together as a group to decide who was going to get an invitation to join the fraternity. Our process consisted of a PowerPoint slideshow with every potential candidate’s picture and a few generic facts about them, most true, some fake. We would proceed to discuss the pros and cons of extending an invitation to them. Our unfiltered feedback often crossed the line. Saying things we would never say had the kid been in front of us.

We knew that the specifics of our conversations would never get out as we respected the confidentiality of our activity. However, what we never accounted for was the weight our words had on ourselves. We all left that room knowing the things that we all said behind other kids’ backs. I would see them on campus and be reminded of what I heard or said about them. It didn’t feel right then and it feels worse now.

This commandment is as much trying to protect the feelings of “the deaf” as it is trying to protect the souls of the people who speak ill of them. I can’t go back and change what happened in the past, but I can reflect on what I did, what I heard and how I felt. I can, and have decided, to handle any similar situations going forward differently.

Do not insult the deaf, after thinking about this in preparation for Yom Kippur, I will strive to be more aware of the things I say about others, even if they will never hear of what I speak, and I invite all of us to be more careful as well.

Nicki Tanner
Leviticus 19:3

“Revere your mother and your father, each one of you.”

Mothers–singular figures through time–have been, in my life, a composite. My birth mother died when I was 3, my father’s second wife raised me as her own, and his last wife was present throughout a 35-year marriage.

My identity was more nurture than nature until last year when my daughter enrolled me in 23 and Me, the genetic testing service. The packet arrived, I spit into the vials provided and sent them off. A card was enclosed. Did I want to have my genetic info matched against their data bank? If so, check a box.

Me: Karen, I don’t want to hear from relatives 20 times removed.
Karen: Send me the form, Mom, and I will work with the information.

Several weeks passed–then–

Karen: Mom,  I’ve found your first cousin. He‘s a lawyer and lives in Chicago. Email him.
Me: Hmm … will do.


Karen: Mom, have you written yet?
Me: I will.
Karen: Now, Mom!
Sighing and CC-ing my daughter, I wrote:

Dear Charles Laff,
I think we are first cousins. My name is Nicki and I live in New York.

I pressed send. Minutes later the phone rang.

Karen: Mom, did you see his response?

I reopened my computer and read:

Yes Nicki, we are first cousins. Your mother and my father were number 6 and 7 of the Laff family. They were extremely close. I will send pictures.

He did, and since then we’ve had long conversations about my mother, her family, their offspring. I am discovering the nature side of my identity–geography, physical resemblances, family traditions.

A photo of my mother holding me, a 2-year-old, is strangely moving. I look at it often–grateful to the woman who gave me my life. Is that revering my mother? I think so.

This Friday I will board a plane for Chicago to spend the weekend with my newfound cousins. With joy I will enlarge our family circle and in so doing honor my mother and the other mothers on whose shoulders I stand.

Steve Molitz
Leviticus 19:3

“Revere your mother and your father, each one of you.”

I’ve always told my parents that if I grow up to be even half the people they are, I’d consider it a life well-lived. I revere them almost as superheroes who make the extraordinary seem ordinary.

Like the other day, when my dad found an envelope of cash at a bank teller’s window. He had caught a glimpse of the woman who had left it, and being almost 6:00 pm on a Friday, he reasoned the bank might be closed by the time she realized her mistake and returned for the money. So with the teller’s blessing, he grabbed the envelope and dashed outside with the hopes of finding her … but she was nowhere in sight.

Unwilling to give up so easily, and thinking she might really need that money for the weekend, he decided he’d check the mall a few blocks away. So off he went through a crowded sea of rush hour pedestrians, and against all odds, he somehow found the woman at the mall!

He explained what had happened and returned the cash, leaving her speechless and stunned that a complete stranger would be so considerate and go to such great lengths.

So during these Days of Awe, as I reflect on who I am, and who I hope to be, I draw inspiration from stories like this and from my parents.

When I was a kid, my folks would say, “hate is a four-letter word.” Or they’d quote Spike Lee, and tell me to just “Do The Right Thing.”

My wife Leslie and I have two children now, Hunter and Sienna, both in the Central Synagogue Nursery School, and just the other day Hunter told me how much he hates bad guys and how he’s gonna blast them with his magic force field. This was my big moment! I’d waited decades for this! So I said, “Son, hate is a four-letter word. I know you really dislike those bad guys, but we don’t hate in this family.”

So as our parents’ wisdom passes through us to the next generation, my wife and I can only hope for the blessing that one day our children will look up to us with the same reverence we hold for our parents.

My folks Howard and Helen live in California, but I want to mention that they flew in to attend their first High Holy Day services at Central, so they’re actually here today. So, Mom and Dad, thank you for instilling in me the core Jewish belief that we should always try to simply, “Do The Right Thing.”

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