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Acharei Mot–Kedoshim: Love Your Fellow Jew as Yourself

V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha. Ani YHVH.

Love your fellow Jew as yourself. I am YHVH. (Leviticus 19:18)

These verses are the climax of what is commonly known as the Holiness Code, which is the centerpiece of the Book of Leviticus. If we are able to follow these commandments, then we might become a holy people, worthy of dwelling with the Divine Presence in our midst.

You probably noticed my unusual translation. Doesn’t V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha mean “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Why would I render it as “Love your fellow Jew as yourself”?

The reason is context: the previous verses explicitly refer to how you treat your kin, the members of your people. Re’echa does mean “your neighbor”, but in this case it is speaking of the person who is literally your neighbor. In ancient Israel, where clans and tribes lived together, this meant your kin.

In fact, later in this same chapter the Torah declares, “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as one of your own – you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34) With these two separate and complementary instructions the Torah makes explicit that we are to treat everyone in our midst lovingly, both our kin and the foreigner.

In modern times we have expanded this ancient Golden Rule such that we think of everyone in the human family as our “neighbor.” But today I am struck by the very specific command to treat other Jews well. That’s not easy! We are a famously contentious bunch. We are prone to hyper-criticism and intense judgment of one another. It is strange and true that we are often toughest on and most critical of our own family.

The verses that immediately precede “love your neighbor as yourself” detail what this behavior really requires of us:

Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha…Lo tikom v’lo titor et b’nei amecha.

Do not hate your fellow Jew in your heart…Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. (Lev. 19:17-18)

This is a tall order. I have a nearly reflexive tendency to leap to judgment about my fellow Jews: They’re doing it wrong! I bet they’re judging me! They’re not Jewish enough! They’re too Jewish! They’re not religious enough! They’re too religious! They’re a disgrace to the Jewish People! Their opinions about Israel are dangerous and wrong! And so on, and so on. My snap judgments prevent me from loving whichever fellow Jew I happen to be facing. I put them in a box, and they don’t stand a chance.

A few weeks ago I happened to be taking a walk in a very religious Jewish neighborhood on Shabbat. My reflexive position was to assume that the religious Jews walking by had no interest in speaking with me, as I was not dressed in the proper Shabbat clothing. But I caught myself, and I decided as an experiment to override my defensiveness. I decided to treat other Jews the way I would like to be treated. I offered a friendly “Shabbat Shalom” to everyone I passed. Lo and behold, some folks smiled warmly at me and returned the greeting, while others ignored me. Sure enough, some folks were happy to connect with me, and that was great. But the best result for me was quite selfish: instead of feeling like I was walking through some “enemy territory”, I noticed that I was happier, I was looking around, and my heart was more open. My little experiment was eye-opening in its liberating and empowering effect upon me.

So I have some homework for you, if you’d like to give this a try: when you find yourself hanging out with some other Jews (or, if you are not Jewish and reading this, feel free to apply this to your own “home team” whoever that might be), notice whether you might be judging them unduly harshly. Allow the judgments to soften, if you can. Make an effort to distinguish between your preconceptions about this person and the human being who actually stands before you. Treat them the way you would like to be treated.

By the way, I’m likely to forget my own homework assignment. So feel free to remind me – lovingly, of course!

With love and joy and wishes for a Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan