This is D’var Torah (words of Torah), that were shared by Shira Wolkenfeld at the conclusion of her year of service as an Avodah Corps Member and Montgomery County Community Organizer.
In the Talmud Sanhedrin, the rabbis have a discussion about who deserves to be on the Sanhedrin – the high court. Essentially they’re asking, who do we consider to be the greatest of rabbis, of leaders, of judges, of legal scholars? Who is worthy of establishing and reviewing and perfecting our systems of justice?
One rabbi answers that only those with high stature, great wisdom, good looks, and those who speak all seventy languages are fit to serve.
And then there’s one answer that I’m fascinated by:
“Rav Yehuda said that Rav said, ‘We place on the Sanhedrin only one who knows how to render a sheretz pure by Torah law.’”
What’s a sheretz? A creepy crawly thing – which the Torah says is inherently, and irreversibly, impure. If we broaden or reframe that, a sheretz can be what we have been taught to be afraid of, or what we as a society have continually cast aside. We, both as individuals and collectively, have built systems, legal and otherwise, to keep sheratzim far away from us, and to keep sheratzim subjugated.
And according to Rav, a Rabbi is only worthy of placement on the Sanhedrin if they can use the Torah itself to render a sheretz pure.
As Laynie Solomon, a teacher at Svara, the Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, puts it, “to be a rabbi is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itself—even, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least able to be overturned.”
This strikes me as an incredible articulation of both moral leadership and a call for radical systemic change.
First, it’s a reminder that what we are most afraid of, what we have been taught to avoid, or taught is inherently bad and impure, isn’t necessarily so. It’s also a reminder that our systems are, and should be, adaptable.
So what does it mean to be able to purify sheratzim? It means fixing the system that rendered or labeled them impure to begin with. It means actively examining, deconstructing, and unlearning our own perceptions of sheratzim. It means centering the experience of sheratzim themselves in the rebuilding of a system that could render them pure.
And, that is the standard we should hold our leaders and changemakers to, and hold ourselves to as we strive to build a more just world.
Rosh Chodesh Elul was just a few days ago, and we ushered in a month of introspection, reflection, and goal setting. We turn inwards to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, both for ourselves and for our communities. As we think about making systems that are more just, and a world that is more whole and more pure, may we start by allowing ourselves to think about overturning what we think of as set in stone. May we turn inwards to what scares us, to the flawed and entrenched systems we have been a part of and to the harm we have both perpetrated and perpetuated. And in this coming month, and the following year, may we seek to elevate the sheratzim to a place of liberation.