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Torah Portion: Aharei Mot

Book of Leviticus

Chaps. 16:1-18:30

May 6, 2016

            Are there limits with regard to how far one must go in the observance of the law? One of the keystone teachings in Jewish law is “dina malchuta dina”; literally, the law of the land is the law. A Jew living outside the State of Israel is “Jewishly” required to follow the civil law code of the country he/she lives in unless the law is consciously oppressive and discriminatory to religious practice.

What is true in the observance of civil law is all the more so with regard to Jewish law. Rabbi Bradley Artson asks, “Do we observe the rules of Torah simply because they are rules, or is the Torah authoritative because it directs us on how to attain a sacred and meaningful Jewish life?”

One clear example of a conflict that can exist in Jewish observance is with regard to health concerns. Each year as the fast day of Yom Kippur approaches I find myself counseling a pregnant woman racked with guilt because she wants to fast but doesn’t know if she can, or an elderly infirmed individual who feels he must fast because God requires it, or a younger person recovering from the flu or a cold but who has every intention to meet the mitzvah/obligation to fast on Yom Kippur. Do mitzvot/obligations to God supersede even health concerns or are there times when Torah law takes a back seat to the human condition?

The answer is found in Leviticus 18:5 where it is written, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humankind shall live by them.” The operative words are “v’chi ba’hem/and you shall live by them,” not die by them! The most important responsibility we bear is the preservation of life. Anything that would shorten, harm, or destroy life is forbidden. If fasting on Yom Kippur may incur physical harm to a pregnant mother or her fetus, she is obligated to eat. If an infirmed individual’s life may be harmed as the result of fasting, he is obligated to eat. If one is sick or even recovering from illness, he/she is required to put a complete healthful recovery ahead of religious obligation.

It is not unfair to suggest that religious law-Jewish, Christian and Muslim-is a light to guide us on the path to a better life, not to destroy it.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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