I wonder if I am the only one to have noticed a recurring expression in this week’s Torah portion. The expression is “Ani Adonai, I am Adonai, the Lord”. Such a high number of recurrences is, to me, slightly embarrassing.
God is not a fashionable topic, nowadays.
In monarchic countries, like the UK, God is evoked more often than in republics. Kings hold power “for the grace of God” - that was Italy, till 1945. The name of God recurs during ceremonies, like the lifecycle rituals of members of the royal family. That are nice to see, and very evocative, and romantic, even if you watch it on TV. But to us they are no more than a show, which by the way has many other interesting things. Like the bride’s dress. It’s hard to relate God, the same God whose name is evoked in these occasions, to our personal life. Which sometimes can be so prosaic, and definitively is not pompous.
God is a very distant relative.
More and more individuals, especially in this Country, are now proud to be atheist, or humanist; to deny God. They think, and say, and repeat, and “demonstrate” that religious beliefs are an obstacle on the road toward social justice. That religions prevent reciprocal understanding, and the sooner science silence religion, the better it is for the whole humanity. If we look at the media, or at the news, we see that religion is associated to war, violence and prevarication. There is not much to be proud, in being religious.
God is an embarrassing partner.
So this statement, “Ani Adonai Eloeikhem, I am the Lord your God” is indeed a difficult one. I am personally uncomfortable with this sentence, that is repeated so many times, to an almost rhythmical effect. And when I find myself uncomfortable, I turn to academic scholarship, to see if there is any help in understanding. Indeed, academic scholarship offers some relief.
Scholars maintain that this Torah portion is part of a sort of a handbook. It is the “Code of Holiness” written down at a crucial point of Israelite history, for people that had probably to recite it by heart. Thus, this recurring statement, “Ani Adonai Eloeikhem, I am Adonay, your God”, is supposed to work as a memory device. It is a rhetorical tool, to add solemnity and inspire reverence in the reader.
But who was the reader? There are scholars who maintain that the audience of the Code of Holiness was the youngest generation of the priestly caste. This is the reason why we find in Leviticus all the instructions pertaining to various kinds of sacrifices. It was, so to say, a set of professional instructions, to be handed down from fathers to sons, replacing a pre-existent set of oral instructions.
Now, this passage from oral to writing is nothing less than a revolution. Because when a set of instructions is written down, it becomes public. So those who perform the tasks there prescribed, well, they become accountable. They are being told that from now on there will be somebody, among their peers, who can test if they are following the rules, behaving properly. Whether they are just exploiting their professional position and the related benefits – I would say: bonuses.
And, yes, I am thinking to the bankers’ bonuses. Because, indeed, bankers are a sort of modern equivalent of ancient priests. They deal with prestige, they handle a matter that keeps society together, weather money or religion. Bankers and priests have to be accountable and responsible, and both have to be very careful, because they have special responsibilities regarding the public good. And, for bankers as well for priest, transparency is a must.
There is another theory, regarding the transparency of the Code of Holiness, and is even more radical. According to this theory, the Code of Holiness had been written not only for the members of the priestly caste, but for the general public. The purpose was to empower the people of Israel as a whole. This is the reason why we find so many commandments, laws, and precepts, aimed to rule the public life. And each of them is followed by the solemn statement: “I am Adonay, your God; Ani Adonay, Eloeikhem”.
“You will not reap the edges and the corners of your field; you will not gather the fallen fruits: you shall leave all this for the poor of the land. I am Adonay, your God; Ani Adonay, Eloeikhem.”
“You will not steal, you will not lie each other, you will not swear falsely, I am the Lord; Ani Adonay.”
“You will not defraud your neighbour, the wages of a labourer shall not remain with you. I am the Lord. Ani Adonay”.
“You will not mock the deaf, you will not put a stumbling block on the journey path of someone who cannot see it. I am the Lord. Ani Adonay”.
“You will not take vengeance. You will love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord”. Etcetera.
Both these scholarly theories are fascinating, and maybe they are not blatantly contradictory. Either we think that the Code of Holiness is a handbook for the members of the priestly caste, or a set of laws about social justice, it is indeed, holy.This is enunciated already in the name, the title if you want, and in the opening part, that we have just read.
“You shall be holy, because I, Adonay, your God, am holy”.
The whole parasha is a call to holiness; and to the holy task of building a just and compassionate society, where the poor and the stranger do not starvation. A society that takes care of those suffering disabilities of various kind. A society where justice reigns in tribunals, and interpersonal relations are ruled by loyalty and truth.
All of this, that we modern would call justice, or equality, is indeed called holy in our Tradition. Because holiness in Judaism is not a private business. Mind that the Book of Leviticus, this call to holiness, this section of the Torah, was spoken in public assembly. It means it was addressed to the people as a collective. For this reason it mainly consists of law and precepts related to interpersonal relations. And after each of them, we are reminded that Adonai is God, and God is holy.
The Sfat Emet, an important hassidic master of the beginning of XIX century, reminds us how Pharao elevates Joseph to the highest rule, governor of his kingdom. In such a moment, the sovereign states: “I am Pharao”. He is helping Joseph to raise the social ladder; true. He is doing, if you want, an act of social justice. He is helping the social advancement of somebody less fortunate; but he does this for his own sake and gratification.
Sfat Emet notices how different is that “Ani Pharao” from the “Ani Adonai Eloeikhem” that we have read so many times. It is egocentric, it is self centric; it is, definitively, not holy. Because holiness, social justice, is not to be pursued as a mean for self gratification, like the one of Pharao. Holiness is part of the Divine Plan. To the Jewish people assembled, like we are today, this Torah reading reminded, as reminds to us today, that we can be holy if we are like God: compassionate, caring, and just. If we strive to be like the One to whom our prayers are addressed on behalf of persons we love. The One to whom we share our deepest hopes and dreams.
May Adonay, our God, always listen to our prayers.