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Let them sleep

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim - Leviticus 16:1-24:23

Vayikra (Leviticus) is known as Torat Kohanim, the teaching of the priests, because so much of it deals with the kohanim and their ritual responsibilities. Over the past several weeks we have read about the korbanot, the sacrifices the priests were to offer on the altar, and two parshiot have been devoted to skin diseases and genital discharges that render individuals ritually impure and the role of the kohanim in restoring them to a state of ritual purity. This week’s double parsha begins with a description of the solemn and awesome Yom Kippur ritual that was to be performed by the kohen gadol (high priest) to purify the sanctuary.

Of course, none of these rituals has been performed for almost 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, so many Jews struggle to find meaning in these parshiot. But this week, things change. In the second part of the reading, Kedoshim, we come to the “Holiness Code” and its ethical imperatives, still relevant. We are commanded:

• Feed the poor,

• Do not wrong the stranger,

• Treat the elderly with respect,

• Run your business honestly, and

• Love your neighbor as yourself.

All these are found in the parsha that begins, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” But to be holy, we have to do more than state principles; we have to live by them. This is the function of Halacha, Jewish law: to guide us in implementing our principles. As Halacha develops over the centuries, it sometimes takes unexpected and delightful turns.

The Torah says “Lo tignovu,” “You shall not steal” (19:11) and “Lo tigzol,” “You shall not commit robbery.” (19:13) According to the Shulhan Aruch, stealing refers to secretly taking money or any article from another person. It encompasses shoplifting, pickpocketing, using an item that someone has given you for safekeeping, and even taking small items such as pencils or envelopes from your employer. Robbery refers to forcibly taking an article from another person by taking it from his hand, entering his home and taking his possessions, or going into his field and taking his produce.

So far, so good — but rabbis are always looking for ways in which we can improve our Torah observance. So Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker (late 19th-early 20th century), included in this prohibition robbing people of their sleep. His contemporary, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, added that robbing people of their sleep is worse than stealing money, because money can be returned, sleep cannot. In the next generation, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian taught his students they should be careful not to wake anyone who is sleeping. Residents of the yeshiva dormitory were cautioned to avoid talking loudly, knocking on doors, or turning up the radio (cited by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin in Love Your Neighbor).

There are many requirements for living an ethical and holy life, so unless the person sitting next to you in shul is snoring audibly, you should probably let him sleep through the rabbi’s sermon.

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