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The Good Place

9 April 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

The TV show ‘The Good Place’ is a fictional story where four individuals are trying to understand what it means to be good. In it, all people on earth are unknowingly scored according to their deeds, every single act arranged according to their moral score, for example:

To hold a door for a person behind you: +8800 points
Hosted refugee family: +300 000 points
End slavery: +800 000 points

One of the characters is called Chidi, a moral philosophy professor. His role in the show is to teach others how to become better individuals. In one of the episodes, he suggests that our principles are what makes us good people. He says: ‘Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them.’ (Season 2, Episode 11.)

It made me ask myself a question – Do we have principles that make us good people? What is the essence of Judaism which does not change whatever happens to us and helps us to navigate in life? What is the core value of our heritage? Our Torah portion this week makes us think about these questions.

This week’s Torah portion Shemini describes the completion of the building of the Tabernacle. What was supposed to be the celebration day of the first service in the Tabernacle turns into tragedy. Two sons of Aaron die because they brought a “strange fire” as a sacrifice to God.

What principle does this story represent? This story has many unanswered questions. There is not much written in the Torah text about it, so we have to think and interpret it.

What was their mistake? Did they do anything wrong? Some Torah commentators suggest that they were drunk, and therefore, so to say, they broke the code of conduct for priests. Others say that they were so pious that they took an initiative to bring an extra offering that has not been commanded. They had a good intention but not obedient for the order of the Temple service. Whatever the reason is, this story seems unjust, not fair, and tragic.

Perhaps, the story of Nadav and Abihu is not about fairness and justice. Sometimes we must live with the consequences of our or other people’s decisions. These decisions can be unjust, unfair, and sometimes tragic.

Aaron was silent when it happened. As a leader on duty, he was not allowed to mourn. At that time, people got together to support him. The entire community mourned the death of Aaron’s sons when he was not able to. Perhaps this is the key message of this story. Perhaps, the main principle of this story is ethical behaviour of the community and mutual support that we give one another.

Liberal Judaism is an ethical monotheism. At the time when Judaism of commandments and obedience fails to guide us and support us, we turn to our core principles and values. Community is one of the highest values for Jewish people. Community is what gives us power, support, strength. The core value of Judaism is connection, interdependence, building bridges, not fences.

May this Shabbat be a time when we come together and be present for one another.

Shabbat shalom.

Igor Zinkov

Sun, 18 April 2021 6 Iyar 5781