Black Like Us

The Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762–1839) probably never saw a black person. There weren’t likely very many in 19th century central Europe. But he certainly knew they existed. After all, they are mentioned in a verse, the one that opens the haftarah of the Torah portion Kedoshim, which will be read this year on the first Shabbat after Pesach. There, Kushites—Kush is generally identified as a kingdom in central Africa—are a simile for the Jewish People.

“Behold, you are like the children of Kush to Me,” the prophetAmos (9:7) quotes the Creator addressing His nation.

“Just as a Kushite differs [from others] in [the color of] his skin,” comments the Talmud (Moed Katan, 16b), “so are the Jewish people different in their actions.”

One might assume that the intention of that explanation is simply that, while most people often act thoughtlessly or selfishly, Jews, if they live as they should, do otherwise, planning their every action, concerned about their obligations to the Creator, and to others.

But the Chasam Sofer’s interpretation of the Talmudic comment (he apparently had “the righteous” in place of “the Jewish people”) goes in a different direction, and makes a point as fundamental as it is timely.

His words:

“It is well known that every Jew is required to observe all the mitzvos. But there is no single path for them all. One Jew may excel in Torah-study, another in avodah (service, or prayer), another in kindnesses to others; this one in one particular mitzvah, that one in another. Nevertheless, while they all differ from each other in their actions, they all have the same intention, to serve G-d with their entire hearts.

“Behold the Kushite. Inside, his organs, his blood and his appearance are all the same as other people’s. Only in the superficiality of his skin is he different from others. This is the meaning of ‘[different] in his skin,’ [meaning] only in his skin. Likewise, the righteous are different [from one another] only ‘in their actions’; their inner conviction and intention, though, are [the same,] aimed at serving G-d in a good way.”

There are two messages to glean here. One—which wasn’t intended by the Chasam Sofer as a message at all, but as a truism—is that people of different colors are only superficially different from one another. What lies beneath our shells are the same veins, sinews and organs, no matter our shades.

The Chasam Sofer’s novel message, though, is that there are different ways, no one of them any less essentially worthy than any other, of serving G-d.

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking that we, or our children, must follow a particular trajectory and land in a particular place in life. But when the rabbis of the Talmud teach that “just as people’s faces all differ one from the other, so do their minds,” they are informing us otherwise, that there are different, equally meritorious, trajectories, different, equally praiseworthy, landing places for different people.

It’s not just that people are dissimilar and will choose a variety of vocations, excel in a variety of fields, and establish individual priorities. It’s that in all our diversity of vocations, fields and priorities, we can be entirely equal servants of the Divine.

Consider Rabbi Broka, who, the Talmud recounts (Ta’anit 22a), was often accompanied by Elijah the Prophet, and once asked him whether in a certain marketplace there were any people who merited the World-to-Come. The individuals Elijah pointed to turned out to be a prison guard who made special efforts to preserve prisoners’ moral integrity and who interceded with the government on behalf of his fellow Jews; and a pair of comedians, who used their humor to cheer up the depressed and defuse disputes.

One wonders if the parents of those meritorious men felt disappointed at their sons’ choices of professions. Or whether they realized that there are, in the end, many paths that can lead to the World-to-Come.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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