What Does it Take to Be a Tzaddik?

Presented to the Board of Reconstructing Judaism, Sunday, May 22, 2022

This week’s portion, the final in the book of VaYikra, being called, describes terrible things.

Bechukotai details what will happen to the people if the community does not follow the way they are called. These consequences are fearful, describing drought, famine, war, devastation & desolation.

Sadly, horrifically, the war, drought, plague, and exile detailed do not seem far away from our current realities. Not some ancient prophecy, but the news.

What would bring about these disasters? The Torah repeats:  וְאִם־תֵּֽלְכ֤וּ עִמִּי֙ קֶ֔רִי

If you walk with me קֶ֔רִי, or בְּקֶֽרִי. Rashi offers two explanations for this word, which appears 7 times in our portion, and only here. One way, and how it is typically translated, is “if you walk in opposition,” or “if you remain hostile,” or “contrary.” And, drawing from Sifra, the midrash on Leviticus, he offers another meaning: haphazardly, by happenstance.

Terrible things happen, both because people intentionally do them, or because we don’t pay attention to what we are doing and live thoughtlessly.

In the counting of the Omer, in the Kabbalistic formulation, this is the week of Yesod.

In the Book of Proverbs (10:25), we’re told:

צַדִּ֗יק יְס֣וֹד עוֹלָֽם׃

the righteous is the foundation of the world

Well, that’s lovely, and, while I do know one person whom I really do believe is one of the lamed-vavniks, the 36 hidden righteous persons upon whom the world depends, she seems to come by in naturally, and I don’t know how she got that way and wonder what it takes to become a tzaddik.

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who was the student of the founder of Hasidim, the Baal Shem Tov, brings another verse from Proverbs:

כִּי שֶׁבַע יִפּוֹל צַדִּיק וָקָם

For a tzadik will fall seven times and get up (Proverbs 24:16)

He asks:

Why does it say tzadik AFTER yipol?

They’re a tzaddik after they fall?

And, of course, answers his own question:

What makes one a Tzadik is that they get up.

Let us not delude ourselves: Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was not making light of falling. He knew from terror and from suffering. This isn’t “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”

Back to our Torah portion: it sure feels that our society, our world, is in free-fall. As individuals, as a community, as a country, we have to get back up. But how? How does one become get-back-up-per? How do we become Tzadikimot? Our ancestors, who lived through times such as ours, and worse, offer answers:

Said Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, to become a tzaddik, you imagine you are one.

That sounds even more simplistic than “dust yourself off”!

Religious imagination is built into our tradition. The last verse of yesterday’s portion – and in most years read together with this week’s – reminds us to keep Shabbat. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote: “on Shabbat, it is not really that one is forbidden to work, it is that all is perfect, there is nothing to do.” Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. On Shabbat, we imagine that our world is complete. This offers us both the vision and even the experience of wholeness – so that, when we make Havdalah and move into the week, we can build towards something we know.

Harvey Milk’s final campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, wrote: “What set Harvey apart….was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.” Milk would have been 92 today had he not been murdered. And he, too, was no stranger to suffering nor was he naïve about the risks to his life. And yet, his motto was: “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

A Tzadik can get up because they have hope.

Yet hope is not enough. Adina Abramowitz said yesterday during the Torah discussion at Dorshei Derech, we need:

Radical Planning. Which brings us back to our verse: We must not walk keri. We must have intentionality. If you don’t prepare for shabbat, it’s going to be pretty hard to much of a world-to-come experience. And if we don’t plan otherwise, if we do not organize and mobilize, terrible things are just as likely to happen as anything else.

We get up because we have put structures in place that support us, that enable us to lift ourselves.

Finally, the quality of Yesod is about connection and, in the words of political theorist Michael Walzer: “There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

Tzadikim raise each other. Tzadikim reach out for the hands of others to get up again.

So how do we become tzadikim? How do we build a foundation of righteousness in this world? How do we avoid the curses of our portion?

  • We envision the future and believe we can achieve it
  • We work to build that future
  • We do it hand in hand, in love (and today is chesed of yesod) and solidarity with each other.  

And here’s a song: You Fall Down You Get Back Up

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