Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kedoshim (Psalms)

Psalm 15: Who is the Good Person?

One of the midrashim on this week’s parshah tells us that “My holiness is higher than your holiness”—that is to say, that human beings can only strive to be holy in a way appropriate to… human beings. Thus, the real question posed by this week’s reading is: What does it mean to be a good human being? Psalm 15 gives some answers to that question.

This psalm, one of those very short psalms—only five verses—which I have described elsewhere as gemlike in its literary perfection, begins with the question: Who is fit to dwell in God’s tent? The rest of the psalm portrays the qualities of the decent man. The sugya in Makkot 24a which seeks to reduce the mitzvot to ever more basic principles, says of this psalm that “David made them to stand upon eleven”—but I think each verse can also be read as defining one essential human trait, with divergent expressions. These are: 1) love of justice, uprightness, honest speech—that is, basic human integrity. 2) decency to others: no backstabbing, no evil speech, plotting, harming of others. Before one can talk about kindness, generosity, love of the other, one must first be concerned with the absence of nastiness, vindictiveness, scheming—all of which are all-too-common human failings. 3) whom he respects and whom he abhors. A person must have a basic moral yardstick through which he looks at the world. He must not be distorted in his values, in his judgments of others (meaning: at times it is important to make judgments about others—something that at times modern people are fearful to do; 4) that he not be overly enamored of money. The verse lists two types of “dirty money”: that involved in bribery, and in interest. The one is money paid directly to distort justice, to gain unjust favor to one side, to “blind the eyes of the wise and the righteous”; the latter is unearned money, gained through loaning out money to the indigent, taking advantage of weakness of those who don’t have.

The emphasis on speech is interesting. The world of the psalmist is one in which idle speech, tale-bearing, is seen as especially dangerous and harmful. The feeling is that our author is speaking here, not merely of idle gossip, but of a vicious means of causing real damage to others. But are they so different? Where exactly does the line go between “talking about people” to pass the time, to ever-so-subtle innuendos, to nasty comments about others that poisons the mind of the hearer before he or she has ever even met the party spoken about?

It is interesting to compare this psalm to Psalm 112 (see HY VI: Vayeshev) and, especially, to Psalm 24. This latter psalm, in between portraying God’s power and majesty and rulership over the entire earth, and a festive chorus in which the gates of the Temple are asked to open up for the King of Glory, there are two or three verses asking the same rhetorical question as here: “Who shall go ascend the mountain of the Lord, and who shall stand in His holy place,” and a similar answer is given: “He who has clean hands, a pure heart, who has not taken My Name in naught nor sworn deceitfully” (vv 3-5).

Significantly, our author does not mention here, among the measures of the good person, either piety, or “spirituality,” or asceticism (viz. the connection of “you shall be holy” to abstemiousness and even asceticism, in certain senses, in both Rashi and Ramban). All the qualities mentioned here have to do with basic “menschlichkeit.”

People sometimes talk about the proximity of Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom ha-Atzmaut, as if Israel were a kind of answer to the Holocaust. Be that as it may, I find the proximity this year between Yom ha-Shoah and Kedoshim meaningful. The real answer to the Shoah is: to be a mensch (this is also the point of Pirkei Avot, which we begin reading this Shabbat); to fill the world with decency. The counterpoint, the polar opposite to holiness is not so much the libertine, the profligate, the hedonist (although they too are problematic), but the Nazi, the latter-day heir to the evildoers of Psalms 3 and 12 and 14 and 22 and 41 and 55 and so on, who say that God does not see, that they can systematically harm and destroy the innocent person for no reason whatsoever, that power is the only thing that matters in this world.

The story is told in the Talmud (I forget the names of the protagonist or the exact source) about one of the Sages, who on his death bed blessed his disciples, “Would that your fear of Heaven equaled your fear of men.” The disciples, surprised at what seemed to them a rather minimalistic demand, asked “Is that all?” He replied: “Halvai!”—meaning, to do so is a great deal, that only a few people truly achieve. “For when a person sins, what does he say to himself? ‘Let no man see me.’” To truly fear God, to be motivated purely by an inner devotion to the laws and values of the Torah, and not by social convention and expectations, is a rare thing.

The Holocaust was, among other things, an object lesson in conformity, in the herd instincts of most human beings. The Shoah was masterminded by Hitler and his cohorts, but its execution was made possible, in practical terms, by the tens of thousands of “little people”—ordinary Germans and Poles and Ukrainians and what not—who allowed themselves to be convinced that the Jews were somehow sub-human, a kind of demonic threat, who somehow deserved this, and that it was OK to murder them—even infants and small children—in cold blood. When the moment of truth came, most people (with some notable, heroic exceptions, the “Righteous Gentiles”) were found lacking in an inner , autonomous sense of ethics, capable of withstanding even the greatest pressures (as in H. C. Andersen’s story of the emperor’s new clothes). How many of us are able to stand up and say—beyond our own living rooms—such-and-such is wrong, wicked, intolerable? How one educates to such a moral compass is the biggest question of all—and one for which I don’t know if there is any simple, effective answer.


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