April 30, 2003
Straight From Heaven
Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1- 20:27)
During April 1996, I led what was going to be my first of numerous trips to Poland. On that trip I served as the rabbinic adviser for 40 high school students who were participating in the March of the Living program.
On our trip we took the students to the city of Lublin, and we visited the once-famous and beautiful yeshiva, Hachmei Lublin, founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the renowned pre-Holocaust spiritual leader. Shapiro revolutionized Torah study by building a magnificent edifice where Torah would be taught. It was the first yeshiva in Europe to have a dormitory, dining hall, inside plumbing and electricity. It was opened in 1930 and closed in 1939 by the Nazis. Today, the yeshiva is a Polish medical school, but on April 18, 1996, for a whole day, it was once again a yeshiva.
Six-thousand students from all over the world came to Lublin that day and learned Torah in the yeshiva. I was honored to teach the group from the West Coast. Before we left for Poland, I had photocopied sheets of the Talmud for that short discourse, and I had placed them in an Airborne Express envelope that happened to be in my office.
As we were walking toward the yeshiva, one of the students noticed my envelope and asked, "Rabbi, where did that come from?"
I looked down and saw that she was pointing to my envelope, and I thought for a moment before answering, "Oh, this I received straight from heaven." With a smile, I added, "Follow me. I will show you what I mean."
What I meant, of course, is that the text of our Holy Writ is Divine, it is "straight from heaven." Nevertheless, the Torah does contain many ethical laws that could have originated with any thinking person. For example, many commandments in this week's portion, Kedoshim, fall under this category. They include such diverse ideas as respect for parents; care of the poor; not to steal, lie or swear falsely; to pay one's employee on time, and concern for the less fortunate. These laws are the kind that every decent, honorable person observes without needing divine decrees to obey them.
Strangely, however, the Torah does not present this collection of commands as secular injunctions divorced from a religious base. Instead, they are grouped according to content and at the conclusion of each passage, the Torah provides, as the reason for their observance, the statement: "I am the Lord your God."
Certainly we can wonder if the performance of these laws depends on reverence for God. Surely there are atheists and secularists who are as meticulous in observing these ethical laws as those who are inspired by religion.
The answer to this question came to me as I taught that day at the yeshiva in Lublin. Looking around at what the Nazis had wrought, I realized that there is no such thing as natural law. If law isn't based on the fear of heaven, it ceases to retain its hold upon the minds of man. The only natural law is that of the jungle. Natural man is but an animal, and it is only when the soul is conditioned by fear of the Lord that it can rise above the jungle.
The Nazis were able to do what they did not because they weren't civilized people; they were the epitome of civilization. They were able to do it because they removed God from the equation. They claimed that the virtues of justice, mercy, lovingkindness and pity were manifestations of weakness, which must be uprooted before the German people could achieve their destiny.
It isn't by accident that -- on the beautiful facade of the yeshiva in Lublin -- Shapiro had engraved in gold leaf lettering the verse from Psalms: "Go, O sons, heed me, the fear of God will I teach you." Shapiro wanted his students, the best that Europe could provide, to know that their goal was to be taught to fear God. That very verse no longer can be seen on the facade. It was removed by the Nazis. It is our job, however, never to forget it, for that is the most important message straight from heaven.