May 5, 2023
Today we celebrate a minor Jewish holiday called Pesach Sheni – “second Passover.” The roots of the holiday are Biblical – a group of Israelites are unable to partake of the Passover sacrifice because they have come into contact with a corpse (and hence are “unclean”). They complain to Moses, telling him that it is unfair that they have been excluded from this most important ritual through no fault of their own. Moses takes the matter to God, who instructs him to provide a “second chance”; anyone who was impure or who missed the Passover sacrifice for some good reason can avail themselves of Pesach Sheni, a month later. At that time, they too can fulfill the mitzvah.
Last night, I attended an event in honor of Pesach Sheni. It was co-sponsored by several organizations, including Tirdof, a new organization of Jewish New York clergy that I recently joined (I spoke about Tirdof from the pulpit two weeks ago). Also in attendance were members of Vocal New York, a grassroots membership organization that advocates on behalf of low-income New Yorkers around issues of homelessness (among other things). The Vocal NY co-sponsors were all people who had experienced homelessness. We had invited local politicians to join us so that we could express solidarity around the issue of homelessness as the city prepares its annual budget. We were joined by Speaker of the New York City Council Adrienne Adams, Comptroller Brad Lander, and a group of other City Council members. It was a remarkable evening, filled with stories of personal experiences, teachings, readings, prayer, and song. Speaker Adams, in particular, spoke movingly about the death of Jordan Neely, a mentally ill homeless man who was killed on a subway train by another rider on Monday. This tragic death underscored for many the deficiencies in the city’s approach to both homelessness and mental health.
I was honored to deliver a d’var Torah at the event. Below are my remarks, which were based on my sermon of April 22nd in which I addressed the subject of homelessness. I believe that the more awareness we have of the problem and the better we are informed about the potential solutions, the more power we will have to act. We can make New York a better place for all New Yorkers.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.
Rabbi Sam Levine
Tirdof – Pesach Sheni D’rash
Right now, Jews around the world are reading the book of Leviticus in our annual cycle of completing the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Israelites, newly freed from Egypt, encamped in the wilderness, at the foot of Mount Sinai, are literally neither here nor there: they have left the land of their servitude, a place of cruelty, immorality, and death, and are on their way to Canaan, a place likewise rife with corruption and wickedness. It is here, in the wild, in this in-between place, that they are to forge a new path. Here, in the arid desert, in the vast openness, they will receive God’s law and create a society that is the diametrical opposite of the place that they left: a place of righteousness, justice, and holiness, that will be an example to the current inhabitants of the land promised to their ancestors.
Within the giant 27-chapter download of laws that is the Book of Leviticus, tucked away in dry passages about tabernacle sacrifices, we find a curious idea. In the opening passage of chapter 12, for example, when God tells Moses to instruct the people in the purification procedures after a woman has given birth, we learn that at the end of her period of post-birth impurity, she is to bring a sacrificial offering of “a lamb and a pigeon or a turtledove” (Lev. 12:6). But two verses later, we read “If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons.” In other words, there’s a budget option being offered here; a lamb is a valuable and expensive item – not everyone can afford such a luxury.
We see this same ethic expressed earlier in Leviticus too: In chapter 5 (vv. 5-8), we read,
…when [a person] realizes his guilt in any of [a series of] matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned. And he shall bring… a female from the flock, sheep or goat, as a sin offering;… But if his means do not suffice for a sheep, he shall bring to the LORD… two turtledoves or two pigeons… And if his means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, he shall bring… a tenth of [a measure] of choice flour for a sin offering…
Here, there are two budget options offered! If you can’t scrape up the money for even a pigeon, just bring a little flour, and that will suffice! God’s law is bending over backwards to make it possible for the poor to participate in the system of sacrifice.
The question is, of course, why? Why does the Torah go to such lengths to emphasize that the poor, too, can participate in the sacrificial system? Why not simply exempt them from this burden? They’re poor after all – why burden them?
I’d like to suggest two answers to that question that I think are directly relevant to our discussion of housing insecurity and homelessness here today.
The first is simple dignity. Participating in the normative rituals and functions of society should not be the exclusive domain of those of means. We read in Deuteronomy (15:11), “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” Every society necessarily has those who are less able to afford luxuries or even costly necessities. “Therefore,” God says, “I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land.”
When referencing the poor, the Torah consistently uses the word achicha – “your brother.” By emphasizing the close relationship through this word, the Torah teaches us to fight the impulse to see the poor and homeless as “other” and embrace them as though they were family – in other words, to care about their concerns. And of all the many ways that our society – and New York City specifically – can meet these concerns and provide some basic measure of dignity, housing is surely the most basic.
The second reason is a little more complex, and it needs a little background. In the ancient Israelite system, it was believed that when someone did something that required a sin offering, the “sin,” acted as a pollutant that then needed to be purged from the environment (specifically, the holy land itself). The sin-offering – the sacrifice – was the catalyst for the purging of the pollutant. In other words, when the individual and the priests offered the sin offering, it cleansed the land of the individual’s sin. If the sin was not purged – if the pollutant was not removed – then the land would absorb the pollution, making it increasingly impure, until it became so polluted that God could no longer reside there. God will not abide in a place of impurity and pollution – period. Full stop. And when God leaves, catastrophe ensues; our enemies prevail, famine and drought plague the land, and only time and repentance can reverse the devastation. The poor must be able to purge their sins, for the sake of everyone!
What we have here, in essence, is the Torah’s broader understanding that the concerns of the individual are on an equal par with the greater needs of the entire community. We must provide affordable access to the individual not just for the sake of the individual but for the sake of the collective. I can think of no better analogy to the housing crisis. Imagine living in a city where there was virtually no homelessness – where the countless number of inconveniences, from small to great – for the housed and unhoused – were simply removed; where crime and pollution as a result of homelessness was vastly mitigated; where emergency-room visits by the homeless were dramatically lessened; where the burden of public guilt and shame around the glaring inequity was removed. The benefits to the entire society – to New York City! – would be immeasurable. And indeed, research has revealed that there can be significant economic benefits to housing the homeless – one broad study out of the University of New Mexico showed that for every dollar spent on housing the homeless, there was a cost-savings return of $1.78! As one researcher from the study said, “[any investor] would be thrilled with a return like that.”
The Torah provides us with two forceful reasons to address the crisis of homelessness – one ethical – that all people are deserving of dignity – and one practical – if we can implement policies that benefit the entire community, we must avail ourselves of them.
I’ll leave us all with a reminder about the rewards of this work: in Deuteronomy 15:10, Moshe tells us, “Give to the needy readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.”
May we all be so blessed.