Parashah of the week: Behar-Bechukkotai

“I the Lord am your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect” Leviticus 26: 13


The great Rabbi Dov Ber, also known as the Maggid of Mezrich, once observed that “an animal walks with its face to the earth, for earthiness and materiality is all that it knows. Man walks upright, for man was born to gaze upon and aspire to the heavens.”

Having been born in the 1960s, into a middle-class Anglo-Jewish family, I was fortunate enough to have the option of “gazing upon and aspiring to the heavens”. And I thankfully took it, studying for a BA in theology at Oxford and later teaching it, my mother’s (unrealised) fears that it would lead to my entering the Church notwithstanding.

But most people — especially women — are not born to salaried contemplation. It is the job of a domestic cleaner, for example, to allow those with access to more prestigious vocations and careers to get on with those (or put their feet up) in houses that have been scrubbed, polished and tidied for them.

It is not, of course, a crime for a busy person to employ someone to come in once or twice a week to clean the house. Even so, Leviticus 26: 13 prompts us to think carefully before referring to her (usually), without using her name, as “the cleaner”.

Our God is a God who elevates servanthood to a vocation. Our liberation from slavery was not a one-off redemption. It has been central to Jewish faith that, even under the most abject of historical conditions, to be a Jew is to be always coming out from “the narrow place”(Egypt) with one’s head held high, into the open place of honour and privilege that is practical service to God.

Menial forms of everyday service should therefore not be dismissed. Cleaning your own house can be a priestly act of purification: a small restoration of order to a chaotic and polluted world.

Put in a less grandiose way, it can be a good workout for the body and soul. For cleaning is a task, not a caste. Genesis 1’s account of the creation of humanity is the revolutionary preface to the Exodus: all of us, equally and without social distinction, are made in the image of God.

Let us, therefore, dedicate ourselves to serving others and honouring any who serve us — not forgetting to use their full and proper name.

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